Wednesday, August 05, 2020

Oskouei’s Sunless Shadows

It is tricky to prosecute, but domestic violence is definitely a crime in the West, whereas in Iran there is no legal recourse against an abusive husband or father. Consequently, many desperate young women take matters into their own hands. The criminal justice system should hardly be surprised, but is still coldly unforgiving. Acclaimed Iranian documentarian Mehrdad Oskouei returns to the Centre for the Correction and Rehabilitation of Young Adults to document a group of girls convicted of killing their predatory husbands and fathers in Sunless Shadows, which screens virtually as part of MoMI’s film series, Bound Unbound: Four by Mehrdad Oskouei.

If you have already seen Oskouei’s
Starless Dreams, you know the girls at the detention facility really are just girls. Yet, many of them were already married—and they have all been convicted of murder. Most of them really were not thinking clearly when they committed their crimes. They were just wanted to make the violence stop. Those who acted together with their mothers are now tormented with maternal concern. Yet, ironically, for most of the incarcerated women, the Centre is unlikely shelter from the exploitative men in their families and society at large.

The irony further compounds when they are visited by a recently released fellow prisoner, who admits she returns often. While there are advantages to the relative freedom of contemporary Iranian society, she misses her friends and the protective environment the shelter offers.

Just when you think
Starless cannot get any sadder, Oskouei finds something even more poignant. He focuses on the personal rather than the political, but it is impossible to miss the profound misogyny and inequity of Iranian society reflected in each of the women’s stories.

Oskouei keeps almost entirely off-camera, but his rapport with the young women is clearly evident when they refer to him as “Uncle Mehrdad.” Anyone who listens to their experiences will sympathize with their plight. However, after watching both
Sunless and Starless (which also screens as part of MoMI’s series), viewers will want to see the missing part of the equation. We burn with righteous indignation to see Oskouei ambush on-camera the abusers and the vindictive family members keeping girls incarcerated, but that kind of confrontational journalism is not part of Iran’s current culture. Frankly, it is a not-so minor miracle Sunless and Starless have been allowed to screen internationally.

Sunless is a painfully intimate and revealing film, both personally and on a sociological level, just like Starless. Once again, Oskouei maintains his reputation as an unusually sensitive and reassuring interviewer. The truth he captures is profoundly sorrowful, but the act of documenting it is really quite gutsy. Highly recommended (even more so than Starless), Sunless Shadows screens virtually as part of MoMI’s mini-Oskouei retrospective, today (8/5) through August 30th.