“Here the pain drips from the walls,” says Somayeh, an inmate of a juvenile female detention centre on the outskirts of Tehran. Somayeh is one of the subjects of Mehrdad Oskouei’s remarkable documentary Starless Dreams. She’s one of the more mature inmates, guilty of a terrible crime, but provoked by an impossible situation. Following a seven-year struggle, Oskouei finally received access to the detention centre and was allowed to film for twenty days. What he has achieved is something close to a masterpiece of compassion.
Starless Dreams is all the more important in that it gives voice to a sector of Iranian society which is so rarely heard from. These young girls have been abused, brutalised and systematically silenced and yet for all that they still do have voices: voices of bold wit, brazen cheek, heart-breaking despair and articulate rage. However, this is no miserablist wallowing. As much as there is pain and torment, there is also life and vitality, a resilience that thumbs its nose at the problems and the society that is, for the most part, hostile to them. We see the girls playing in the snow and a game of truth or dare, though there is a violence even to their games which is not too far from the self-harm some of them inflict on themselves. One of the girls has renamed herself 651, because that’s the number of grams of drugs she was carrying. Another one calls herself Tintin after the comic books she likes to read.
Perhaps the liveliest of the bunch calls herself Nobody for obvious reasons. We first meet Nobody returning from a court hearing and pushing in the dinner line to her fellow inmates’ consternation. She mimics her emotional pleas to the judge which immediately serves to put us on guard. Maybe we too are being manipulated by pleas of victimhood. These girls are self-confessedly no angels. They all admit to drug abuse, and a whole swathe of crimes from thieving, to stabbing and murder. However, their tales of family life are horrifying and become a chorus of sexual abuse and rape, physical violence and neglect. Nobody challenges the off-camera Oskouei, criticising him for telling them he has a sixteen-year-old daughter. It makes them feel bad to know that, she tells him. When he asks why, she says that his daughter will grow up in warmth and love whereas they have been brought up in “filth and rot”.
Oskouei is no fly-on-the-wall documentarian. He becomes a confidante, his deep gentle voice asking questions, prying and challenging. And the girls also play up to the camera, grabbing the boom microphone and singing a song, or giving each other mock interviews, which in their jokey honesty reveal more. These girls hanker after their own agency. The girls live in a one room dormitory with bunks lining the walls. Here, they take their meals, play their games, chat and occasionally weep and console one another. They also throughout the period of the filming turn their hands to making the place a little less ugly, putting up curtains and cleaning the carpets. In many ways, their prison has actually become a shelter and release is a moment of weeping and anxiety. One of the inmates bleakly anticipates her arrival home: “I’ll be welcomed with beatings and chains. It’ll be nice and sweet.”
A prison functionary tells an inmate being released: “Once you’re out you can kill yourself, you’re no longer our responsibility.” When the Imam turns up to offer spiritual guidance, he’s instantly out of his depth as the girls challenge him about why God is a man and not a woman and how the law treats women who kill men more harshly than they do men who kill women. “Society has to be calm,” he intones, but they know that calm simply means the status quo, abuse, complicit silence and their own situation. Accompanying his earlier documentaries, It’s Always Late for Freedom and The Last Days of Winter, Starless Dreams is a fascinating and humane view of the marginalised and forgotten. The girls’ voices rise as a startlingly powerful chorus, questioning, challenging and demanding we listen.