Juvenile Injustice: ‘Starless Dreams’ is a painfully intimate look at imprisoned girls in Iran

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Mehrdad Oskouei and his small crew spent a month inside a juvenile-detention ward with a dozen or so hardened criminals, accused of robbery, drug abuse and patricide. The inmates were all young women. A girl who calls herself “Nobody” stole cars for drug money, and Somayeh killed her father. He was a man, she tells the filmmaker, that she loved so much, she would wait up for him when he worked late, so that he would not eat dinner alone. Then he began taking opium and beating his wife with a chair, and pimping his daughters for cash.

At the beginning of Starless Dreams, which is set in a detention center on the outskirts of Tehran, a girl enters and is fingerprinted. She was arrested for vagrancy. Later, she admits to Oskouei, who conducts all the interviews but does not appear on-camera, that she was “bothered” by her uncle. It is a euphemism used throughout the film for rape, mostly by male pedophiles. Oskouei asks her if she told anyone that her uncle was “bothering” her and her sister. She did, and her mother beat her for lying. The girl explains that she was once a good student and dreamed of becoming a cop or a lawyer so that “other girls don’t end up like me and my sister.” Her dream, though, is “to die.” She’s tired of life, she tells the filmmaker.

Another young woman who is about to be released explains to Oskouei that her welcome home will consist of a beating with chains. Later, she begs the female warden to allow her to make a call. The only person waiting for her is her father, and she wants to know if her mother will come as well. Her fear is palpable, but the warden tells her she is no longer the prison’s problem, even if she kills herself. The filmmaker shoots the girl’s departure through the bars of the prison gates.

Oskouei also films the girls talking to one another, and eating together in the communal space, lined with bunk beds, where they spend their days. Sometimes, he is permitted to observe a meeting between the girls and their visitors. During one of these scenes, a husband brings his two infant children to visit their mother, Miss Ziba. He is a motorcycle messenger, although he used to be a motorcycle mechanic before he got drunk, smashed a window and lost his job. Miss Ziba is a prisoner because she stole money to feed their children while her husband was in the hospital. Was there no one to help you, the filmmaker asks, and Miss Ziba makes a “tsking” sound heard many times in the film. It means “no,” but it also suggests annoyance.

At times, Oskouei tests the audience’s patience, as he does Miss Ziba’s, because he does not trust his material, he seems too aggressive, too voyeuristic and too eager to hear the girls’ painful self-disclosures, yet as the documentary unfolds there is the sense that the moment for insight and compassion is brief, that the filmmaker’s seeming impatience is a desperation born of that realization. At one point, speaking to Somayeh about her father, Oskouei pauses, so in the moment that a thought seems to slip from his lips that he had not meant to articulate. “There is great pain,” he says to the young woman. Yes, Somayeh, observes, “it drips from the walls.” Such flashes of authenticity and humanity are rare in documentaries, and in life, because the soul or the mind, in order to grasp them, must inhabit a place of torment where few would tread.

Oskouei took the time to speak to FJI by telephone from Tehran on June 8, before the Human Rights Watch Film Festival’s New York screening of Starless Dreams on June 10 and 11. Below is an edited version of our interview. 

Film Journal International: You have made two other documentaries about juvenile offenders, both about boys, It’s Always Late for Freedom[2008] and The Last Days of Winter [2012]. What was different this time when speaking to young female offenders for Starless Dreams?

Mehrdad OskoueiWith It’s Always Late for Freedom, I filmed at a male juvenile-detention center for ten days. Every day, I had to be accompanied by a guard. At the end of the day, I had to hand over my footage to the authorities before starting work the next day. While I was filming that documentary, I learned about a ward that was separated by high walls from the rest of the institution. It was where girls were being kept, and no one was allowed in. One day, I saw two very innocent-looking girls who were shackled and in handcuffs; they were being taken to that part of the facility. That was the moment I realized that the documentary I was making would not be the end of my project. I decided to make one more about boys, and then to film in the female juvenile-detention center.

Seven years before I began filming Starless Dreams, I started my communication with the authorities to receive permission. For a long time, I received responses that said the documentaries I had made so far were very good, but that it was not possible to film girls. Then, finally, I got permission to film in that facility for three months. In general, it was more difficult for me to understand the girls’ personalities and to be able to capture their spirits.

In traditional society, going back to normal life after being in detention is much easier for boys than it is for girls. As long as boys have a family and a support system, they are able to go back to their lives, but most of the issues that the girls are dealing with are of a sexual nature, and some of the abuse they experience is sexual, so that is more complicated. The boys trusted me more easily as a director, whereas for the girls it was much more difficult to open up to me. I really wanted to make a movie that told the story of these girls and what they suffered outside of prison. I wanted it to be their narrative, so I showed them my past movies about boys in order to gain their trust. As a director, it was hard to edit the girls’ stories, too, because they were so complicated.

FJI: Frankly, I was more shocked by the crimes these women were subject to than the crimes they committed. I wonder if you intended that.

MO: Any documentary you see is based on the perspective and, hopefully, on the responsible judgment of the director. For this documentary, I had to select stories that would explain why these girls were in prison. I was trying to act as a psychologist, and basically get them to open up, so that I could gain access to what they really feel, what they experience deep in their hearts. In doing that, I hope to change how my society and the international community view girls and girl offenders.

I told the girls that I have a daughter about the same age as they are, and I explained my reasons for making the documentary. I told them I wanted people to see their real selves. Many of them confessed secrets they had not told anyone else; some said they did not even understand their comfort with me. A few of these conversations are in the movie, but my editor and I thought that these secrets might endanger the girls and we decided not to include them all.

FJI: The movie does not follow the girls after they leave the detention center, and so the audience is led to imagine some terrible things. Was this a conscious decision, or were you not permitted to follow them?

MO: That is a very good question. My crew and I had to sign paperwork for all three movies that stated we would not contact any of the boys and girls who were released. It was determined that if we were in contact with them, it would be more dangerous for them. One thing you might notice in Starless Dreams is that there were no bars inside the prison, nothing that looks like a traditional image of a prison, but when the girls are released or walking out alone, going to their future, you see those bars. They separate the prison from the outside. I wanted to imply that they are entering a larger prison.

FJI: Yes, I had visions of Jafar Panahi’s The Circle.

[no response]

FJI: The women who work in the prison do not seem to be very sympathetic to the girls, nor do they seem to have training. Do they get training and do they work to rehabilitate the girls?

MO: As a matter of fact, many of them are sympathetic to these girls, and they do receive training. They also train on the job, but the problem is that there are many challenges. It is extremely difficult to work with girls who are seriously harmed. It is not an easy job to control them. When people work with these girls as a profession, over a long period of time, it is difficult for them not to react to the stress. When I showed my movie to the workers, all of them cried; even the head of the center sobbed. They told me that I showed a different image of these girls, one they did not often see. They said that they were going to be nicer because they saw the girls as they had not seen them before.

FJI: The vast majority of Americans have not been able to visit your country, so our impressions of it are formed from Iranian movies. It is rare to screen a documentary. What are your expectations of the New York audience who will soon see Starless Dreams?

MO: The film is basically an image of what happens in life. What I am trying to do is compel the audience to accept, and then to open up to the unexpected. I want to encourage them to see the inner layers. The incidents I show in the movie are not specific to the girls in Iran. There might be legal and cultural differences in our two systems, but there are undoubtedly commonalities. All girls in this situation will go through similar experiences. I traveled to Colombia not long ago—some of us were having lunch at a sidewalk café. Two women approached me and told me they were social workers at a juvenile-detention center there. What they saw in my film, they said, mirrored their own experiences. In Berlin, a woman told me that she was very touched by these girls, and that their stories exist everywhere. Perhaps five blocks away from the place you are sitting right now, in Manhattan, there is a juvenile-detention center for girls. Regardless of the country, a girl will be sitting alone and looking at the horizon and thinking what is going to be waiting for her when she is released from prison. This documentary will be successful if it crosses these cultural boundaries we are speaking about now.

FJI: Your humanism is very apparent in the documentary, but I must ask you a question that may seem insensitive. I think that the surprise for American audiences watching it may derive from the view that Iranians are a people with strong religious values, living in a theocracy. How can they dispose of young women in this way?

MO: Yes, Iran is a religious country, perhaps very similar to the American Midwest. The religious society supports girls, as long as they are trying to walk the right path. If a girl ends up using drugs or spending the night outside, the society stops caring for her. What no one thinks about for one second is what the society has done to this girl—or what that girl is going through that made her decide to sleep on the street. I have shown the film in Iran, but it is not screened widely there. I made this decision because I don’t want to put the girls in more danger. I can tell you that so far, the shock of the Iranian audience was greater than that of any international audience that has screened it.

In Iran, it is very common for children with bad support systems to receive money from people. It is considered a good deed to support poor children, but nobody thinks of supporting girls who are juvenile offenders. After seeing the movie, many audience members said they wanted to help these girls. What the girls need is to have people listen to their stories. I have been trying to raise awareness of them, and I feel a deep responsibility to show these cruel images, and the part of my society that is often neglected.

FJI: Are you in danger?

MO: A government official, in the department where I received permission to film, told me that it was one of the best documentaries he had seen in a long time. I know the “red line” and I try to work inside it. I haven’t had any problems, except of course that I am marginalized somewhat because of the work I do. I am an independent filmmaker, and I raise the money for my movies. While the government officials may not object to my work, no government organization has told me they want to fund my films so that these issues can be worked upon collectively. It took me seven years to get permission to make Starless Dreams, and I spent two years working on it, and probably it will not find a wide audience. So, I am always in a difficult financial situation, as are other independent filmmakers. I am not a member of the mainstream of the movie industry. In the end, these stories I am telling, the personal narratives in my documentaries, will become a part of the collective memory of my society.