“Eye opening” doesn’t even begin to describe my reaction to director Mehrdad Oskouei’s Starless Dreams, a deeply revealing documentary that takes a look inside an all-female, mostly juvenile prison in Iran, that houses everything from murders to girls who have simply run away from home after years of abuse. As much as their crimes may be vastly different, their stories are shockingly similar as patterns emerge of Iranian girls and women being treated as something less than human, subject to physical and sexual abuse, and called liars if they call out their abusers. Oskouei negotiated for years to get permission to film inside the facility, and the resulting footage is as raw, painful and honest as you can possibly imagine.
This prison is not like those you see in American films. There are no roving gangs beating up the weakest inmates. These young women pray together, some share their common histories and even joke and brag about the crimes they’ve committed, ranging from common thievery to drug dealing and prostitution. They all seem to have individuals that haunt them in the outside world and make them afraid to return and live the normal life they so desperate crave. Some pray for death, others simply want to remain locked up and safe rather than return to the world of hurt they are sure is waiting for them at home. We see some talking on the phone to relatives who never want to see them again, and all the false bravado comes crashing down into a shower of tears.
But as we hear one story after another in carefully extracted interviews, it becomes clear that something about the oppressive society (which is considered fairly liberal for the region) has given these girls few choices in how to deal with the injustices they are being dealt on a daily basis. One young woman is in jail for killing her father, and when you hear her heartbreaking story, you’ll understand why. This is a place where a man’s life is legally worth more than a woman’s, and victims of abuse are given almost no means of reporting or getting protection or justice from those (usually family members) abusing them.
As devastating as Starless Dreams can be at times, director Oskouei never forgets to give us examples of the undying spirit that so many of these girls have. Being around others who identify with their plight gives them courage and the ability to laugh and joke again. But the filmmaker also searches the corners of the facility to other young women who don’t join in during lighter moments in the prison. They hide in the darkness or stare out the window, with nothing and no one around the console them. There is no shortage of suffering on display, but there are fleeting moments of hope when families come together at unexpected times to protect these girls. I know Starless Dreams sounds heavy, and it is. But it’s a deeply enriching and unforgettable portrait of survival, and a undeniable plea for change and help.
The film opens today for a weeklong run at Facets Cinémathèque.