STARLESS DREAMS: THE PASSIONATE HUMANISM OF MEHRAD OSKOUEI
In a rare foray into first-run theatrical exhibition, the Museum of the Moving Image in New York presents the U.S. premiere of Starless Dreams, a documentary by Iranian filmmaker Mehrdad Oskouei, about young girls in a juvenile detention center on the outskirts of Tehran. Oskouei is well regarded in his home country, but his previous films have all been shorts, making them difficult to program outside of the international film-festival circuit. Now that he’s made his first feature-length film, with Cinema Guild as distributor, he may be on the verge of broader renown, poised to join the likes of Asghar Farhadi, Jafar Panahi, and Bahman Ghobadi.
His newfound attention seems merited. In some ways, Starless Dreams is a standard talking-heads documentary, with much of it made up of Oskouei’s interviews with the girls in the detention center as learns their histories and how they feel about their lives. But he also alternates these intimate chats with more Frederick Wiseman-esque observational segments of the girls playing and interacting with authority figures and relatives. These fly-on-the-wall scenes help transcend the grim nature of the film’s subject, showing how capable these troubled girls still are of experiencing childlike wonder.
Yet it’s in the interviews that Oskouei displays his artistic strength: his compassion. Many of these scenes are breathtaking in their intimacy and sometimes brutal candor. We hear Oskouei’s voice often throughout the film, but it’s so humble and fatherly that it’s no surprise the girls open up to him—even when he asks tough questions about their past, or their outlook on life. In this, Oskouei is less like Michael Moore, whose interviews are often as much about himself as his subjects, and more like the late Abbas Kiarostami. Kiarostami, who made a few documentaries throughout the late-1970s and ’80s highlighting Iran’s problems through its effect on children, always put his young subjects ahead of his own ego.
Starless Dreams doesn’t represent the first mature showing of Oskouei’s empathetic sensibility. On Jan. 21, the Museum of the Moving Image is also screening two of his previous shorts, It’s Always Late for Freedom (2007) and The Last Days of Winter (2011), both of which feature young boys in juvenile detention centers, and which exude a similar aesthetic and humanistic approach. The former could be seen as a dry run for Starless Dreams. Instead of the sustained interview segments of the feature, in the short, Oskouei often cuts back and forth between interview and observational footage, perhaps to pack more detail into a short running time. The Last Days of Winter diverges from the feature and short in breaking out of the claustrophobia of the prison walls, and following a group of incarcerated children as they travel to a place near the Caspian Sea on holiday. Some of the most moving moments of this unofficial trilogy come in the scenes in The Last Days of Winter. They are scenes of children doing nothing more than splashing in seawater, horsing around, and acting like normal kids. The sense of imprisonment as they reenter the facility in the film’s final shot is especially devastating in this context.
Together, the three films constitute a collective portrait, not only of a prison system coldly unresponsive to kids’ needs and desires, but also of a society as a whole that has locked them into a dreary cycle of violence and repression. A common refrain in the interviews is how the children would prefer to stay in prison, because of abusive or neglectful parents, or fears of having no choice but to go back to a criminal lifestyle. For many of them, nothing positive awaits them in the outside world. As a result, they have developed startlingly fatalistic attitudes. “I’m tired of living,” says one girl. A boy in The Last Days of Winter adds, “I’m not scared of death. I’m scared of life.” Other incarcerated children put their trust in God, rather than in a judicial system that fails to address the root causes that led them to commit crimes or get hooked on drugs in the first place.
What makes these films even more sobering are the privileged glimpses that Oskouei gives us of children at their most uninhibited. We see them channeling their anxiety through puppetry in Starless Dreams, exorcising frustrations by pretending to be cops and judges in The Last Days of Winter, and helping one another during drug withdrawal in It’s Always Late For Freedom. Innocence peeks through, but it has been blighted, perhaps permanently, by a repressive—and, for the girls, repressively patriarchal—society. Oskouei forcefully suggests that repression is the norm in Iranian society more than any of us realize, and things don’t appear to be getting any better. Oskouei thus gives voice to those that society at large deems as not worth hearing.