This article appears in our Summer 2016 issue, Money. Subscribe today!
Iranian documentarian Mehrdad Oskouei says that his goal in filmmaking is to “delve into the spirit of my people and their everyday lives and understand what made them who they were and express this in art.” His most recent film, Starless Dreams, is the third in a trilogy about life in youth detention centers in Iran. His previous films, It’s Always Late for Freedom and The Last Days of Winter, entered detention centers for young teen boys; Starless Dreams intimately chronicles the lives of teenage girls in a juvenile detention center outside Tehran.
The film opens as a new resident, Khateneh, gets her fingerprints and handprints recorded in ink. Oskouei takes great care to show the gentle invasiveness of the booking process, but he is filming neither the center nor the girls with a disparaging eye.
Common threads run throughout the girls’ stories, including poverty, addiction, abuse, and exploitation. While this is a story about individuals, it’s really—quietly—a story about the society that creates them.
Oskouei’s style as a documentarian would seem invasive if it weren’t so empathetic. His voice is present and strong, and he asks the girls probing questions: about their crimes, about their histories, and about their hopes. “What is your dream?” he asks Khateneh. “To die,” she answers, overwhelmed by abuse and depression.
The girls are empowered by one another and by telling their stories to Oskouei. While the “walls drip with pain,” as one girl says, they seem to be given life amongst one another, protected from cruel circumstances outside.
When Khateneh is released, Oskouei again asks her what her dream is, and this time she says she wants to live. The restorative power of female companionship—of shared laughter, music, tears—has healed her. For now, at least: Oskouei has pointed out in interviews that it’s much more difficult for young women, relative to men, to be accepted back into society.
When he recently accepted the True Vision Award at the True/False Film Festival, Oskouei dedicated the prize—and the film itself—to “the girls to whom no one dedicates anything.” Starless Dreams doesn’t offer much hope, but it is a compelling portrait of girls whose dreams darken with their years.
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