Room One: Isolated
The House is Black
( خانه سیاه است)
In 1962, renowned Iranian poet, Forough Farrokhzad, released her first work of film titled The House is Black (خانه سیاه است). The House is Black is a documentary-style short film focused on the experiences of individuals living in the Bababaghi leprosarium found in Northwestern Iran, about 20 kilometers from Tabriz. To create this film, Farrokhzad and Ebrahim Golestan, an Iranian filmmaker, lived in the Bababaghi leprosarium for twelve days. At the time that The House is Black was filmed, leprosy was still thought to be very contagious and discussing the disease, and those afflicted by it, was considered taboo. With this in mind, Farrokhzad’s work becomes even more meaningful.
Golestan narrates the opening frames of the film, while the screen is black, and then the narration switches to Farrokhzad, whose lines are all taken from the Old Testament (translated to Persian). After concluding filming, Farrokhzad decided to adopt a son, Hossein Mansouri, from the leprosarium. Though Farrokhzad died tragically in a car accident just five years after The House is Black was released, we can imagine how her time at Bababaghi shaped the final years of her life.
The House is Black is one of the most unique, poignant, and humanistic portrayals of leprosy to exist, and Farrokhzad’s artistic tendencies and personal investment in this film are evident. While this was her first time working with film as an artistic medium, Farrokhzad’s poetry focused heavily on bringing the private, secluded lives of women into “the center of the segregated world of Persian poetry” (Milani). She accomplishes a similar task with, The House is Black, making the isolated leprosarium, and the stories of the individuals who inhabit it, visible. It is important to note the relationship that Farrokhzad had with the individuals at Bababaghi — she did not create this film as an outsider looking in. Farzaneh Milani, an expert on Farrokhzad’s life and work, says that when she interviewed individuals from the Bababaghi leprosarium, after Farrokhzad’s passing, they remarked that during her 12 days there, “Forough would kiss [them], and touch [them], hold [their] kids, and share meals with them.” Milani perfectly describes the art of The House is Black, stating that Farrokhzad “avoids turning lives into metaphors, manipulating them, essentializing them, or immobilizing them in a single frame or single story.” The House is Black is not merely a story of individuals disfigured by disease and physically isolated from society — the film’s transgressive, honest, and intimate nature asks us to open our eyes and stop distancing ourselves from suffering and disfigurement. It is the story of a community like any other.
Forough and her son, Hossein Mansouri, adopted from Bababaghi.
Forough Farrokhzad and Ebrahim Golestan filming The House is Black.
"The world has no shortage of ugliness.
There would be more ugliness in the world if humanity closed its eyes to it.
But human beings are problem solvers.
On this screen, an image will appear. A vision of pain no compassionate human being should ignore.
To find a solution for this ugliness, to keep curing this pain, and to aid these problems, is the motive of this film and the hope of its makers."
A brief primer on leprosy
The "Separating Sickness"
Hansen's Disease (leprosy) has been misunderstood for much of history. In 1873, a Norwegian doctor named Gerard Henrik Armauer Hansen became the first person to identify the pathogen responsible for leprosy — Mycobacterium leprae. Dr. Hansen's discovery proved that long-held beliefs about leprosy being a hereditary disease or a punishment from God were false. Nevertheless, individuals with Leprosy continued to face stigma and isolation.
Hansen's Disease is characterized by a bacterial infection that damages the skin and nerves. The disfigurement caused by Hansen's Disease vary in severity and can include the loss of fingers and toes, the collapse of the nose, ulcerations, and skin lesions. Today, we know that most individuals (~95%) are naturally immune to Hansen's Disease, and that it is primarily transmitted from human to human via saliva. Further, those who become infected by Mycobacterium leprae can be easily treated with a cocktail of antibiotics.
In Europe, during the Middle Ages, individuals with leprosy had to wear special clothing and ring bells to warn others that they were approaching. In 14th century Europe, following the black death, fear of contagion and leprosy became heightened. Individuals with leprosy were physically relocated, and were often sent to special hospitals and homes on the fringes of society. The isolation of individuals with leprosy became a common practice as time passed, with leprosariums emerging all around the world. For individuals with leprosy, isolation became a way of life.
The Kalaupapa Leprosarium established in 1866 on the island of Moloka'i, Hawai'i.
Medieval depiction of an individual with Leprosy – special attire and holding bell, lesions on skin.
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