“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.
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.