Monday, February 19, 2018

Mehrdad Oskouei at Anthology: Starless Dreams

Like everything else in Iran, being a woman makes it harder to be confined to a juvenal correctional facility. However, many of the young women remanded there would prefer to stay rather than return to their families. They are the first to admit they committed the crimes they were accused of, but viewers will quickly conclude probably everyone else in their worlds ought to be behind bars, rather than them, based on the heartbreaking confessions recorded in Mehrdad Oskouei’s Starless Dreams (trailer here), which screens as part of Documentary, Iranian Style, a new retrospective of the documentarian’s work starting this Friday at Anthology Film Archives.

This is Oskouei’s third documentary shot at the Centre for Correction and Rehabilitation of Young Adults, but it was the first time he was allowed in the ultra-restricted girls’ section. They really are girls—teens and even tweeners forced to live on the streets and commit crimes to survive or pay for a fix. Getting approval for films on the boys was a dicey proposition, but Starless was a particularly daunting bureaucratic challenge. Nevertheless, it is clear the young women immediately trusted Oskouei and even forgot his presence during times of high emotions.

Several of the young residents were sentenced to the Centre for drug-related crimes. At least one is there for conspiring to kill her violent, drug-addicted father, much in the style of The Burning Bed. Several were victims of domestic violence and sexual molestation, which they fear will only get worse if they are released back into the custody of their abusive families. However, the Centre’s administration makes it clear once they exit the property, their former charges are no longer their responsibility. We do not see very much of the adult supervision in Starless, but when we do, they look really bad.

This film will just break your heart over and over again. The stories these young women have to tell are absolutely harrowing. Yet, they judge themselves just as harshly as the problematic adults they encounter. Oskouei never directly addresses politics or ideology, but it is crystal clear his subjects have been poorly served by Iran’s legal and social welfare systems, as well as the judgmental misogyny of the Islamist state religion.

It is also easy to see why the juvenile prisoners were so accepting of Oskouei. His voice is remarkably warm and soothing, while his questions always reflect the sort of humanist perspective they have rarely encountered. This is a quietly intimate film, but it is just as much a work of progressive muckraking as anything Jacob Riis ever did. Highly recommended, Starless Dreams screens this Friday (2/23) and next Monday (2/26) during the Mehrdad Oskouei retrospective at Anthology Film Archives.