Starless Dreams

Review by Caroline Middleton

Directed by

Mehrdad Oskouei

Starring

Anticipation.

Follows Oskouei’s trend of criminal documentaries, though it’s a first for the female-take on prison.

Enjoyment.

Sad but smiling, these girls will grip you with their tales of woe.

In Retrospect.

Exposes the reality of being a female, rather than a criminal, in ‘modern’ Iran.

Hear the shocking stories of Iranian women coerced into crime.

Starless Dreams is the product of a seven year battle with the Iranian authorities for permission to film a female criminal facility. The result? A touching investigation into the microcosmic world of a ‘rehabilitation’ centre for underage female criminals in Tehran.

From off-camera, director Oskouei gently coerces the girls into explaining why they have been imprisoned, offering them a compassion to which most of them are unfamiliar. A common trend that pushed them towards crimes is rape, though the euphemism ‘bothered’ is how they delicately word it. One 17-year-old, Ghazal, was driven to self-immolation because she was forced to sell drugs for her step-father, which has left her fingers held together with metal splints. She is filmed crouched on a table-tennis board, moulding a snowman with nothing but her bare, insensitive hands. It’s a metaphor for the communal numbness these young women feel from a lack of love.

Talking with other prisoners, their witty melancholy is revealed. One calls herself 651 because she was found with that many grams of meth when she was arrested. Another simply goes by the name Nobody. These women are so mindful of their abusive family experiences that they want to actively stay in the facility. They play spin-the-bottle and puppets, while singing smutty songs, permeating a thread of optimism into an otherwise pessimistic narrative. It’s easy to forget that, as well as being mothers, wives and drug-addicts, they are still only teenagers.

The film isn’t a totally directionless observation of female criminality, however. When Nobody is asked why she doesn’t dream of something better, she simply says, “society is stronger than I am… If society had given my father a job, he wouldn’t have become an addict.” The bigger picture is that of female dependence on their male ‘keepers’, most of whom actively violate their innocence, either through sex, drugs or beatings. One girl murdered her father with her sister and mother because addiction had turned him into a violent monster.

Starless Dreams offers no epilogue on the girls who are released, fading into their accepted annonimity, Oskoeui’s camera limited to the gates of the facility. This adds an emotional power as it proves that prison is a temporary salvation from the people that help coerce these inmates into crime.

Published 22 Nov 2016

Tags: Documentary

Anticipation.

Follows Oskouei’s trend of criminal documentaries, though it’s a first for the female-take on prison.

Enjoyment.

Sad but smiling, these girls will grip you with their tales of woe.

In Retrospect.

Exposes the reality of being a female, rather than a criminal, in ‘modern’ Iran.

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