It’s tacitly revealing when a documentary filmmaker does, or does not, make their presence overtly known. Those of the Michael Moore/Werner Herzog clan can’t help but foreground their distinct, at times frustrating, personalities, maintaining a clear distance from their subjects that often limits intimacy. Those documenting individuals caught in perilous cultural and political climates usually keep their voices respectfully silent, and for the majority of Merhdad Oskouei’s Starless Dreams, a sweetly intimate portrait of young Iranian women in juvenile detention, he follows suit. Not too long in, though, one of the girls pulls the man behind the camera into the foreground with a disarming question: “Do you have a daughter?”
Even muted, a filmmaker’s presence is unignorable, as is their position of privilege in filming heartache they’ve not personally endured. Often that means the director’s distanced outsider sympathy paving over the struggle and suffering of those filmed, as though these films’ sole priority is journalistic, letting us know the heart-breaking conditions endured in other parts of the globe, rather than lending a unique perspective from within those struggle. In Starless Dreams, authorship and perspective splinter at that aforementioned question, exposing the safety and respect with which Oskouei can maintain for his child that the girls he’s interviewing have lived without. “She’s been raised in love and comfort while we’re being raised in rot and filth.” From that moment on, Oskouei becomes more translator than narrator, with the “inmates” – “residents” more accurately conveys the facility’s tone of positive reflection – educating the similarly privileged viewer on life as a young woman in Iran, refusing to let us leave their placid anguish and anxieties at the door.
It takes seconds for our understanding of the detention facility to be turned on its hea. More haven than prison, the girls participate in snowball fights in the yard, lively dinner table conversations and musical dance parties. It’s also a sanctuary for those escaping embattled domestic environments that already restrict their freedoms without any institutional precedent needed. Still not quite a sanctuary, though, this is simply a safe space for these women to reflect on the hardships they’ve endured and ruminate their ever uncertain futures. It’s a rare, anomalous space of respite, where teen girls, often with adult decisions thrust upon them, are allowed to dictate not the rules of society, but our perception of it. In the same way that autocracies and patriarchies control the information given to the public, these girls are the authority we’re relying on, and they illustrate a domestic existence so drastic that it challenges our own western notions of what’s morally validated.
All of the girls are distinct in personality and circumstances, though their names aren’t given much time to stick in our minds. Not that they need a name to remain distinct, with more than one opting for an alias. One girl christens herself “651”, after the number of grams of drugs she was caught with. That one of these women calls herself “Nobody” should lend its own context for how these women’s identities have been erased in Iranian society. Here, even one without a name has a voice and a resilient, weathered life story to share. At the age of 17, still working out the anxieties of her teenhood, Ghazal already has a child and a husband to consider, and potentially to fear. Family feels less like a safe haven than an ambiguously threatening specter, another girl deciding that her family not be informed of her whereabouts, for fear of being once again silenced and disregarded.
Some of the films’ testimonies feel like they’re bluntly acclimating the audience to the extreme social conditions experienced by daily by budding Iranian women. Others do more to effectively dismount the viewer from any clear-cut, black-and-white morality complex, suggesting upsetting shades of muddled grey in between those didactic assumptions. As a girl confidently explains the circumstances that made killing her father unavoidable, and her internal turmoil in coming to that drastic decision, the crimes that seem unthinkable in western suburbia feel startlingly validated. These extreme measures aren’t taken without immense heartache and uncertainty. When a girl calmly says that she’ll name her child “Elena if it’s a girl. If it’s a boy I’ll kill him,” it reads less as a horrifying statement than an indictment of a society where a young woman is rightfully fearful of the consequences of having a son.
Mostly reserved in his filmmaking, leaving it to his subjects to guide the film’s outlook on Iran – we never see beyond the detention center, further enabling the girls to form our perspective on a world we can’t see for ourselves – Oskouei does keep a delicate, tenuous focus on the crisp cold textures and steaming hisses of the facility. Phone chords shake as girls struggle to secure safe housing once they’re released. Patient, casual long-takes unite women, all lost and broken in different, but not totally dissimilar, ways. An ominous echo chamber of eerie whistles chimes in whenever someone exits back into society, their futures uncertain and isolated as they leave our view. Even those happy to leave feel cautious, convinced that feeling of comfort cannot last. What Oskouei’s makes possible isn’t any kind of resolution to societal crisis, but simply a open space to speak truth against a social order that’d rather they say nothing at all. There isn’t as much hope as there is dread, but there are enough fleeting feelings of joy, solidarity and safety, small but radical things.