Apologies first for the long silence; I’d actually hoped to have this review up and written a few days ago. But after two years my luck finally ran out, and I finally got a case of Covid-19. Fortunately it was a mild case – my symptoms never got worse than what I typically get with a cold, and I very nearly talked myself out of the “just in case” at-home test I gave myself Saturday. But thank goodness I took it, and was able to isolate myself and warn Roommate Russ; and thanks to our caution (and both of us being vaccinated) he never got infected, and I am on the mend. I never even lost my sense of smell or taste – and given that my go-to cough remedy is a Canadian product that’s famous for tasting hideous, I briefly wished I had.
But I still went through four solid days of quarantine – confined to my room, and having to warn Roommate Russ each time I had to step out to the washroom or the kitchen. And by staggering coincidence, the movie I had just seen before this all happened was this 1963 documentary short about an Iranian leper colony.
Actually, I’m not sure whether “documentary” is the right word for this film; it’s more like a tone poem. There is a brief introductory message from the film’s producer, Ebrahim Golestan, stating that we are about to see “an image of ugliness”, but that we are seeing it in the hopes that we may therefore be moved to help ease the suffering we see. And then after that….we are simply shown various residents of Iran’s Bababaghi Hospice, going about their lives, with director Forugh Farrokhzad periodically reciting passages from the Q’uran, from Sufi poetry, or from some of her own poetry.
I realize that makes things sound really pretentious. But somehow it isn’t. Farrokhzad’s narration is minimal, letting the sights and scenes she’s captured carry most of the day; the young woman looking in a mirror, regarding the missing nose and ulcerated eye on her face. The man who has nothing to do but pace back and forth past a row of five cabins, lightly tapping each door, over and over. The women trying to spin yarn with stubs for fingers. The man in threadbare torn pants, one leg amputated from the knee down, walking with a sort of half-kneel on the bare stump. There are some moments of joy – people gathering for meals, a wedding celebration, kids playing football. But even in these scenes most people are dressed to hide their missing limbs or worn-away noses. Even some of the ball-playing kids are showing the sores of early-stage infection.
The lengthiest sequence is no more than two minutes long, and comes at the end – a brief schoolroom scene, where a teacher is firing questions at a group of giggling kids. After one student has recited a Muslim prayer of thanks to Allah for “giving me a mother and a father”, he asks one boy why you’d thank Allah for that. “I don’t know, sir,” the boy says with a smirk. “I don’t have either one.” Another boy is challenged to name “three beautiful things”, and then another challenged to “name three ugly things” – the three ugly things he names are “a hand, a foot, and a face!” to appreciative giggles from the rest of the group.
There are some brief scenes of patients getting treatment – doctors giving cursory exams, or one woman stoically letting nurses pile weighted pillows on her outstretched hands – and Golestan adds another title card that given adequate care, leprosy is completely curable, but the medicine is often too expensive and so leprosy has become another disease of poverty. But most of the narration, and most of the scenes, are simply scenes of the residents stoically making what they can of their lives, with Farrokhzad’s quiet voice occasionally quoting a Sufi lament or a Muslim hymn.
In the wrong hands, this kind of parade of grotesquerie and suffering could feel exploitative. But I could somehow sense that Farrokhzad cared deeply about her subjects – she was not showing us suffering lepers, she was showing us suffering people. Any of these people would have been completely healed with better medical care, better sanitation, better food, better housing; but they got the short end of the stick and they ended up here….and while the rest of the world was pushing them away and avoiding them, they were just stoically accepting their fate.
Journalist Joobin Bekhrad also thought of this film during the pandemic. He was writing in 2020, when it felt like we were all in an interminable lockdown and were all going stir crazy; for some, though, this kind of isolation would have been nothing new, and would never have ended. And then, as now, the people with out the money or the resources would have been more likely to be pushed off into the shadows and forgotten. In Iran of 1963, rich as well as poor might have been exposed to leprosy; but it’s the poor people who would have had more exposure, with less money to treat their own cases, and found themselves more likely to suffer the worst effects. Similarly, in 2020, it was those with service jobs who put themselves most at risk of exposure to Covid – grocery workers, gas station attendants, cab drivers – and these same people had the least access to health care. I lasted until 2022 before catching Covid, buying myself time to get three vaccine doses first and thus greatly lessening my case, and my isolation lasted only four days. Some people from 2020’s first wave who had no health insurance are still struggling with the isolation of “long Covid” to this day – and may end their lives there, as the rest of the world moves on.