Doc Talk

Doc Talk: Outcasts, deportees, crustaceans, grants

A scene from “The House Is Black”
A scene from “The House Is Black”© FACETS 2019

“There is no shortage of ugliness in the world,” says a voice-over narrator at the beginning of Forough Farrokhzad’s short documentary “The House Is Black” (1963). “If man closed his eyes to it there would be even more.”

Farrokhzad’s eyes are wide open in this look at a leper colony in northern Iran. The first image in the film is of a woman gazing at her reflection in a mirror, her veiled face, perhaps once beautiful, now resembling a melting candle.

In this poetic, empathic portrait of a place where ugliness and suffering have been hidden away Farrokhzad observes faces, limbs, hands, and feet grotesquely disfigured by the disease. She reveals the squalid conditions the lepers live under and the primitive treatments that pass for medical care. But she also discloses the humanity of her subjects and a tragic beauty enhanced by the detached elegance of her black-and-white images, the dreamlike cadences of the editing, and the passages from the Old Testament, the Koran, and her own poetry that she reads over the images.

The ugliness is undeniable. The staggering ranks of the afflicted look like a scene from “The Walking Dead”; broken victims at prayer offer thanks to God; a schoolteacher asks a boy, “Why should we thank God for having a mother and father?,” and he replies, “I don’t know; I don’t have either.” But when the children play, their laughter and joy almost make you forget their misery and fate.


This was Farrokhzad’s only film (she died, at 32, in 1967), but its influence helped shape the Iranian New Wave that would include Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi, and Mohsen Makhmalbaf.

“The House Is Black” is available from Facets on DVD ($19.95), via streaming ($3.99), and by digital download ($14.99). The DVD also includes two shorts by Makhmalbaf and a 2001 interview with Pooran Farrokhzad, Forough’s sister .


Dreams denied

“What could be more American than family?” asks an immigration lawyer in Pat McGee’s documentary “The Deported.” Nonetheless, as the film points out, the no-tolerance policy on undocumented immigrants adopted by the Trump administration undermines that institution — not just for those separated at the border but for families that have lived productively for years in this country. These are not the “criminal aliens” preying on “innocent Americans” Trump decries in a speech defending the policy but are innocent victims themselves.

McGee profiles four such families, each facing rapidly approaching deadlines before their legal options to remain run out and they must confront again the hardships awaiting them in their native countries. They include a Guatemalan man in Connecticut who sought asylum as a teenager and would be separated from his US-born wife and two children if sent back to his native country; an Albanian who has lived in Detroit for 18 years and faces deportation despite being the sole caregiver for his multiple sclerosis-stricken wife; a pre-med student who has been living with her mother in Austin, Texas, but may now be forced back to Mexico, where the father who sexually abused her is waiting; and a family of four who were driven out of Colombia by terrorists and await being uprooted from their home in San Diego and returned to the dangers they had fled.

McGee also presents other sides of the argument, including a sympathetic profile of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent on patrol and an interview with an immigration judge who explains the legalities of the process. But the callous, illogical inhumanity of the current policy is best summed up by Steven Camarota, director of research for the conservative Center for Immigration Studies. “If that creates hardship for other people,” he says, referring to the fate of the children of deportees who were infants or unborn when their parents fled to this country, “that’s something they may have thought about when they came to America illegally.”


“The Deported,” can be streamed on YouTube Originals, screens at the Flickers’ Rhode Island International Film Festival on Aug. 8, at the North Scituate, R.I., Public Library, at 3:30 p.m., and on Aug. 10, at Veterans Memorial Auditorium, Providence, at 3:30 p.m. McGee will participate in a Q&A following the Aug. 8 screening.

Go to prog.tsharp.xyz/en/riiff/37/search/the%20deported.

Gray area

While most of the country’s focus has been on the situation on our southern border, trouble has also been brewing on our frontier to the north. Since the Revolutionary War the United States and Canada have both claimed ownership of 277 square miles of ocean in the Gulf of Maine known as the Gray Zone. That conflict has heated up recently as climate change has affected that patch of water and the lobster population has surged, becoming a rich resource coveted by both countries.

Boston Globe reporter David Abel’s documentary “Lobster War” investigates this crisis from both sides, sharing the concerns of beleaguered New England and Canadian lobstermen while showing how this dispute is a microcosm of the uneasy trade relations between the two countries and a symptom of the looming environmental disaster that threatens us all.


“Lobster War” screens at the Brattle Theatre on Aug. 6 at 6:30 p.m. The director will be present for a Q&A after the screening. Admission is free but an RSVP is recommended.

Wishes granted

The LEF Foundation, an organization dedicated to assisting independent documentary filmmakers in New England, has announced this year’s Moving Image Fund Summer Pre-Production Awards.

Six filmmakers will receive $5,000 grants to assist them in completing their projects. They include Heather Cassano, whose “The Fate of Human Beings” investigates the stories of 310 people buried in unmarked graves in Waltham’s Metfern Cemetery; Jessie Beers-Altman’s “Inherited,” about the 200,000 pieces of artwork left by Harold Altman after his death in 2003 to his daughter, who is still trying to figure out what to do with them; Rudy Hypolite’s “Black Barbershops and Salons: A Neighborhood Oasis,” a sociological tour of tonsorial establishments in Roxbury, Jamaica Plain, and Stoughton ; Mary Jirmanus Saba’s “Amazon Is the Future,” which examines the tech giant’s impact on our lives; Zulilah Merry’s “No One Told Me,” in which the filmmaker examines her own experience of first-time parenthood and that of another couple; and Meghan Shea’s “Down With X,” a profile of a Guatemalan fashion designer with Down Syndrome.

Interested filmmakers should note that the deadline for the next LEF grants is Jan. 31, 2020.


Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.