Tuesday, 23 January 2018

The House is Black (Khaneh Siah Ast) (1963)

Khaneh Siah Ast
Misery again again…

This next movie on the List is a short Iranian poetic documentary about a leper colony in Iran. Its obscure Iranian title “Khaneh Siah Ast” apparently means “The House is Black” and that is actually a very apt title for the lives of the people in this little movie.

The camera films life in the leper colony for better or worse. Some people have lost arms or legs, some have strangely distorted faces, but the prevalent picture is one of people trying to just accept their fate, getting on with life despite suffering a chronic and terminal disease. In fact, many of the scenes look like everyday life anywhere else. Eating, smoking, talking and whatever it is people do. They are even partying.

We also get various details about the disease. All the horrors these people are going through and why they are kept separate from other people. This is a contagious disease. We also get the most shocking piece of information: Leprosy can be cured and with the right treatment even advanced stages has a hope of recovery. Shocking because it means that these people do not need to live a life in misery. It is their poverty and the surrounding world who has condemned them to this life.

This becomes even more poignant when we see children in the colony, all with clear symptoms of leprosy and all trying to live a normal childhood, playing ball and going to school. They are not ignorant of their condition, but they are accepting it. Or taught to accept it. Religion seems to be the tool used to make the children appreciate and accept their lot. As one of the children is asked by the teacher, why it is he should thank God for his father and his mother. He answers that he does not know, he does not have a father or a mother.

Throughout the movie the narrator is reciting poems of religious nature that seems to tell another story, one of mercy and compassion, starkly at odds with the use of religion in the colony. I am not good enough with poetry to appreciate it, but even I can see the point.

The leper colony is an abomination and its existence should trigger a bad conscience with those responsible. This is a long time ago and in an exotic country, but the problem is universal enough to be relevant for us as well. The children do not deserve that fate and they and we should not accept it. That is the message and it is well received.

I have mentioned it before, 1963 must be a year of misery. Children with leprosy just take the cake. If I see one more misery feast I will start screaming.  At least this one was short. But 20 minutes is easily long enough for the subject. It is a window into a world, it is snapshot of the lives of these people, showing us they are just as human as we are, but there is no story as such and there is no need it should be any longer. It manages what it set out to do fine enough.


  1. See, I get the misery angle from this one, but I found a lot of beauty in it.

    1. @Steve and Bea: I think my problem is at least partly that I am getting overloaded with sad and depressive films. This movie very easily pressed that pedal on me.
      Another thing is that it made me angry. Yes, there are happy pictures, but the message I read was that because nobody wants to pay for their treatment these children are going to live and die lepers. And then they will be mouthed off with some religious doctrine about accepting their lot and be happy with what they got. The narrators poem seemed to bemoan that fate and condemn that decision and that touched me more than the lyrical beauty of it, which I am probably too plebeian to appreciate.

  2. I'm with Steve here. I found it sad but not depressing and with a beautiful core.