The five girls in IDFA opener Sunless Shadows may have killed a male relative, but in Oskouei’s sensitive portrayal they emerge themselves as the true victims of a stifling patriarchal system that offers no sense of escape.
Tehran’s Rehabilitation and Correctional Centre for Girls in Mehrdad Oskouei’s Sunless Shadows, IDFA’s 2019 opening film, seems – notwithstanding the documentary’s title – a remarkably pleasant place. In their central room, with bunk beds along the side, there are rugs and drapes, and toys and music for the girls, who gather in small groups on the floor or on the beds. There isn’t any real privacy, but the girls seem to get along quite well, and there are even English lessons, workshops, and guided meditation sessions. They have access to a sunny garden, where ducklings scurry about, and the girls get to play with an inmate’s baby.
The contrast with Oskouei’s previous documentary Starless Dreams (2016) is instructive. Here, the same Tehran institution is filmed, but in a harsher light. More like a regular prison, with the opening scenes showing girls having their fingerprints and mugshots taken, it has colder lighting and greyer spaces.
The multi-award-winning Starless Dreams may give a more diverse overview of incarcerated life, and therefore better reportage. But Sunless Shadows is a better film.
Content-wise, the biggest difference is that Sunless Shadows focuses exclusively on girls who have killed a male relative – because of the incessant beatings and molestations of themselves or their sisters and mothers. A harrowing experience in itself, the underlying reasons, spoken of in more or less direct terms, are often horrendous. Notwithstanding the sunnier settings, in the interviews, the girls in Sunless Shadows seem much more depressed, and sometimes suicidal.
Apart from focusing on the girls’ experience, Oskouei adds two structural elements. He interviews some of the girls’ complicit mothers who are on death row, filming an emotional visit by their daughters. Secondly, he lets the girls talk to a camera by themselves, addressing their mothers (“Mom, your love has put me in prison”) or even their victims (“I know you loved me, but Daddy, your love hurt me”) – which from a religious viewpoint makes sense. If the deceased would forgive them in the hereafter, God might instil forgiveness in the surviving relatives – which is a prerequisite for commuting their mothers’ sentences.
Together, these approaches make Sunless Shadows into a tighter, more systematic film, in which Oskouei manages to interweave the different girls’ stories into a clear narrative, balancing – as in Starless Dreams – heart-wrenching conversations with more light-hearted scenes, as the girls play charades and hopscotch, laughing and teasing (“I’ll be Bruce Lee, and you be Kung-Fu Panda”).
All the while the film builds to an unequivocal conclusion. These teenage girls, although they don’t deny their deeds, are themselves victims of a patriarchy which leaves them at the mercy of their fathers, uncles, and forced teen-marriages, with no emergency exits, as requests for help are routinely ignored and requests for divorce denied.
Oskouei’s greatest accomplishment, however, is access. He is reportedly the first person allowed to film inside this institution. Although these questions remain unanswered within the documentaries, Oskouei has described the long road towards Sunless Shadows elsewhere. It started with It’s Always Late for Freedom (2007), for which it took six months to get permission to film inside a boys’ house of correction, and four years for its follow-up The Last Days of Winter (2011). After these two films, both just under an hour in duration, getting permission for his first feature-length documentary Starless Dreams took another seven years.
He had to gain the trust not only of the institute but of the girls themselves, who obviously might have reservations about his all-male crew. He gained their confidence by showing them his earlier films and telling them of his own problems at home growing up, including a suicide attempt at fifteen. At least one girl, however, wasn’t happy when he explained he had a sixteen-year-old daughter himself. Tearfully, she says in Starless Dreams: “You shouldn’t have told us! She is being raised with love and comfort, while we were raised in rot and filth!”
Of course we cannot fully know the intentions of the institute – although Oskouei has previously stated that he shows the centre as it is – and also have to take into account the girls’ realisation that whatever they say might be used against them in their judicial process. Still, the various interviews, anecdotes and stolen moments create a convincing argument that, whatever the girls’ individual circumstances, if there had been a shelter for them to go to, they probably would not have ended up in prison.
Oskouei’s determination in documenting these correctional youth facilities is admirable. In an previous interview, with Dutch broadcaster VPRO, he claimed to have a real impact on the system: “Many prison authorities know me, trust me, and have seen my films. That has probably had some influence on certain developments of the last years. For example, boys under fifteen can no longer be incarcerated, and recently a law has been passed which gives under-eighteens the possibility of paying a fine instead of going to prison.”
At the same time, Oskouei himself has been sentenced to ten months imprisonment. The authorities, he says, had become suspicious of his motives after Starless Dreams’ international success – even though the film has not been released in Iran. The verdict on his appeal is expected April 2020.
Their objections can hardly be based on the portrayal of the correctional institute itself, which is quite flattering. Indeed, the greatest indictment of the Iranian patriarchy in Starless Dreams and Sunless Shadows are the girls who say they’d rather stay inside than return to society. Yes, they would like to go back to school and study – to “prove our father wrong for saying we’d never amount to anything”. But, as one girl despairs: “With a father dead and a mother dying, what can a girl do all alone?” And even when there is a mother or grandmother present, the fear of predatory males remains. Plus, how will these former inmates ever find a good husband?
The dilemma is put clearest by Somayeh, a girl we first got to know in Starless Dreams, and who returns to the centre in Sunless Shadows as a warmly welcomed visitor. She had previously been incarcerated for seven years, and is now free for two. When Oskouei asks her: “After getting out, did any of your dreams come true?”, she answers: “No, none of them.” And, after weighing the pros and cons, she concludes that, “overall, I’m more at ease here”.