By John Ballard
One of my guilty pleasures in retirement is allowing myself time for contemplation and reflection. Weekends without assignments are especially satisfying because barring some unscheduled disaster or emergency, even the news cycle seems to calm down for the weekend. This morning, thanks to a link at 3 Quarks Daily, I allowed myself to watch and learn about a classic film by Forough Farrokhzad, a gifted young Persian woman, a poet and film-maker, killed in a car crash in 1967 at the age of 32. It's only twenty minutes long, but I realized as I watched how seldom I allow myself to calm down long enough to absorb time-consuming artistic creations. Listening to the radio as I drive is second-nature for me. But that's not the same as deliberately sitting alone with a monitor and getting focused on something as simple as a video.
The film is a look at life and suffering in a leper colony and focuses on the human condition and the beauty of creation. It is spliced with Farrokhzad's narration of quotes from the Old Testament, the Koran and her own poetry. It was the only film she directed before her death in 1967. During the shooting she became attached to a child of two lepers, whom she later adopted.
Although the film attracted little attention outside Iran when released, it has since been recognised as a landmark in Iranian film. Reviewer Eric Henderson described the film; "One of the prototypal essay films, The House is Black paved the way for the Iranian New Wave.
As a medical corpsman in Korea in the Sixties I heard one of the doctors mention that getting an assignment to Korea at that time was a good opportunity to see first-hand a few medical problems that would not likely be seen in the US. Aside from military trauma, he mentioned skin disorders, specifically Hansen's Disease, which has all but vanished in the US. The remnants of a leper colony remain in Hawaii and there is a place in Carville, Louisiana called the Carville Leprosarium, now home to a handful of people, but mostly a historic site.
In 1916 Congress passed an Act whereby the United States Public Health Services took over the colony along with the Daughters of Charity. For over 100 years more than 5,000 leprosy patients were cared for at Carville and some 1,000 are buried at Carville. Many, many of them offered themselves as guinea pigs and took many experimental medicines hoping to find a cure. Once a person became a patient he or she stayed on the grounds for the rest of their lives. Children with the disease were brought to Carville, separated from their families and probably lived their entire life there. Though marriages were discouraged, many patients married each other and small cottages were built on the grounds for them to live. However, any children born of these marriages were immediately put in foster care, either in an institution for orphans or in private homes. Through the years the children could visit on Sunday to see their parents on the other side of the fence. Some of the stories are heartwrenching.
As you watch this film, be aware that although it is filmed at another time, in another place, the story is universal. Even today, although the circumstances and causes are not the same, many thousands of people live out their lives with conditions that are not all that different, living with hopes every bit as bleak.