“The Foreclosure of Possibility”
Ryan Watson (Misericordia University)
Toward the end of Mehrdad Oskouei’s contemplative and heart-wrenching Iranian documentary Starless Dreams, we view a group of girls posing a series of profound questions to a cleric during a discussion of human rights. The cleric is visiting the girls at an all-female juvenile detention facility on the outskirts of Tehran where they have been remanded for a variety of crimes, from murder and drug possession to simple vagrancy. The questions posed by the girls include why men and women are sentenced differently, why God is always considered to be a man, and why a man is allowed to kill his child but a child is not allowed to kill her father. His answer? “We aren’t allowed to do whatever we want in society…[w]hat does society expect of us? To keep society calm and peaceful.” For the cleric, such peace is achieved through devotion, order, and strict adherence to the patriarchal hierarchy of fundamentalist Islam. For the girls, it is through questioning, opportunity, hope, and an escape from a cycle of precarity, poverty, and violence. The young women of the film are imprisoned not just within the walls of the facility, but also within an economically unequal society tinged with the repressive tenants of Islam as practiced in Iran. Thus, such an escape remains constantly and frustratingly out of reach, a near impossibility. In the film, this relay between profound pain and youthful hope is premised on the power of striking juxtapositions and the foreclosure of possibility rendered through Oskouei’s attentive formal and aesthetic strategies that recall the sensibilities of New Iranian Cinema pioneers such as Abbas Kiarostami and Asghar Farhadi.
In many ways, the stories and struggles rendered in this film are uncannily similar to those in the recent Netflix docu-series Girls Incarcerated, which was filmed at a juvenile correction facility in Madison, Indiana. Here, we meet a similar group of teenagers who face addiction, poverty, incarceration, and the indifference of the state beyond the basic “corrective” action of levying punishment. Like the girls in Starless Dreams, the futures of the young women in Indiana are just as dire. But, in America, there is always our faith in the illusory dream of fame as an antidote to poverty. Like the former stars of the MTV show Teen Mom, the series is just the beginning of a career on the edges of celebrity. For instance, one of the subjects of Girls Incarcerated, Brianna Guerra, is currently starting a radio and TV show, and many of the others are building their social media presence in a bid to monetize their notoriety. In the US, the situations of the poor and precarious are not much different than in Iran and there is no easy way out. The only difference is that in the US our religion of late capitalist consumerism besotted with pathological optimism offers the false horizon of dreams in the guise of riches and/or stardom to temporarily alleviate the suffering rendered by structural inequalities and the lack of a social safety net. In theocratic Iran, even that apocryphal hope is not an option.
In Starless Dreams, Oskouei employs long-takes and close-ups in a series of potently affective interviews with the girls, often questioning them rapidly about the intimate details of their crimes, families, and wishes for the future. In one interview, Ghazal, a young woman of about fifteen with soft features and large eyes, recounts her arrest for drug possession, the fact that her step-father often “bothered” (sexually and/or physically abused, a scenario common to most of the girls at the facility) her, and that she bore a child at fourteen. This part of the interview ends with a lingering close-up of Ghazal’s face, a common technique used throughout the film for added emotional resonance after particularly affective testimonies. A quick cut from this shot reveals a close-up of Ghazal’s hands as she admits that she attempted to burn herself to death and now has metal pins in her hand after it was partially reconstructed. This stark contrast, between the innocence of Ghazal’s face and the mutilated flesh of her hands, represent the larger contrast of innocence and possibility versus guilt and the absence of hope—circumstances that persist and leave scars. Often in the film, Oskouei will cut between a particularly emotional solo interview paired with a more communal scene of the girls playing games or having fun together outside. The cuts are always preceded by a sound bridge of quiet nature sounds and/or a cacophony of young, playful voices. These offer the viewer the promise of respite, a transition to an “outside” or somewhere else that does not truly exist for the girls. Like theirs, our momentary hope is dashed when we realize we are still in the facility, cycling between the same few rooms and courtyards. Any momentary joy felt while playing is fleeting in the face of the longer term circumstances the girls face.
Yet, as many of the girl’s recount, leaving and going “home” is not a safe or viable option, as it puts them back in exceedingly precarious and often dangerous situations. For instance, Somayeh, who killed her father (with the help of her mother and sister) because he was an addict who abused them constantly, touches on the sense of stultifying entrapment she faces. If she had not killed her father, she argues, she would have had to put up with the abuse and would have become an addict herself to cope—the cycle continuing no matter which option she chose. Similarly, when Fereshete learns she will soon be released from prison, we can hear Oskouei congratulate her on her freedom. She responds, “you should say ‘condolences.’” The girls are doubly stuck: in juvenile detention and within larger cycles of addiction, poverty, and abuse. Even if they were to transcend all of that, they live in a theocratic, male-dominated society that places them in an inferior position of power. Oskouei constantly reinforces this maddening sense of foreclosure and lack of hope by lingering in the cramped spaces of the center, never leaving the small rooms and courtyards, and often filming the young women within windows, bars, and other enclosed frames. Even when a girl is released, she is always filmed from behind the bars of the gate that surround the center. She is returned to her former life and out of the responsibility of the state, but the camera lingers, ready to receive her again. The cycle will continue.
Hadi Gharabaghi (New York University)
Starless Dreams is a documentary made by Mehrdad Oskouei, the well-known Iranian documentarian, about a juvenile rehabilitation and correction center that houses a group of young women in the outskirts of Tehran. The Persian title is The Dreams at Dawn [Royahay-e Dam-e Sobh]. It refers to the liminal moment that both divides and links night and day: the moment of deepest dreams. Oskouei’s latest documentary has won multiple awards in international festivals and screened publicly in educational centers inside Iran. Critics have praised the sensitivity of Starless Dreams for how it treats its subjects. Indeed, it does not take long for the viewer to develop a picture of the young women – beyond their crimes of drug possession, robbery, and even patricide – as victims of domestic abuse, social neglect, and deep-rooted patriarchy and as individuals who aspire to a better future even in the face of their psychological scars. Arguably, two factors primarily influence our experience of Oskouei’s documentary: first, the juvenile status of the documentary subjects and, second, the cultural, national, and diplomatic spheres that mediate the documentary experience of the primarily foreign viewers.
Starless Dreams has entered the international public sphere during a time of increasing attention to incarcerated and institutionalized bodies, especially of underage groups. The documentary space that publicizes these otherwise invisible lives constitutes a social space that is mediated not only cinematically but also institutionally as a space of state policing and discipline. Notably, documentary treatments of such spaces in the United States – such as Lost for Life (Joshua Rofé, 2013), Prison Kids: A Crime Against America’s Children (Alissa Figueroa, 2015), and They Call Us Monsters (Ben Lear, 2016) – have criticized the US government’s mistreatment of underprivileged, underage minorities in solitary confinement. Unfortunately, the United States holds the largest number of underage people behind bars among developed countries. For this juvenile population, as these documentaries show, such extreme treatment renders the outside world as a highly desired and precious space of freedom. Starless Dreams breaks this binary in its Iranian example.
Oskouei’s documentary puts into question the function of a state correctional institution as a space of incarceration through its ambivalent representation of the juvenile center. In fact, the documentary communicates very little about the policing function of the center. The institution in Starless Dreams is represented as a center of counseling and adult education. The film never shows the center in its entirety and the officials are rarely shown as talking head figures. The authority here is often heard rather than seen, and the voices are mainly those of professional therapists. Moreover, the correctional facility is depicted as a large warehouse of social space. Within this context, Starless Dreams progresses as a series of emotionally-charged individual testimonies punctuated by group gatherings of prayer, joyful events of solidarity, and scenes of family reunion and release.
Yet, the young women in Starless Dreams are conflicted about staying in or leaving the center. They yearn for freedom outside while they also hold onto the barbed wire center for its security. Some have been rejected by their families while others fear returning to their homes, which are sites of domestic drug abuse and sexual assault. Although confined within a policed space, they do their chores collectively as in a commune. Scenes of group prayer do not communicate a mandatory practice but one of spiritual comfort and, incidentally, include a group discussion on the topic of women’s rights. Additionally, inmate testimony supports the juvenile correction center as a safe haven in contrast to the insecurity of familial spaces and of Tehran’s streets. Put together, these scenes render the policing function of the penitentiary institution as background. Indeed, the documentary avoids addressing the institutional function of the penitentiary center. This may be interpreted as an authorial decision to foreground the lives of young women beyond their institutional confinement. Or is there another explanation? What rationality does in fact govern the documentary’s ambivalently positive representation of the juvenile center?
In its aspiration to portray the subjectivity of its documentary characters, Starless Dreams has to navigate a muddy transnational discourse. The documentary cannot escape a highly hyperbolized and weaponized geopolitical sphere in which Iranian-American relations have been represented in diplomatic crisis for over four decades. A generation of Iranian documentarians have learned methods of adapting their artistic visions to such a diplomatic context in order to avoid censorship internally and stereotypes of national character externally, without going into exile. Genealogically, this pattern of internal/external censorship and diplomacy predates the period of diplomatic crisis back to the birth of the modernist documentary tradition in Iran during the 1960s. Notably, Starless Dreams references Forough Farrokhzad’s The House is Black (1962) in its ambiguity and stylistic homage. This period also marks the time when documentarians began learning the art of self-censorship to avoid the shelving of their films by the Ministry of Culture and Art. Through what I have called documentary diplomacy, the institutional stamp of Iranian-American diplomacy over the film branch of that Ministry and its documentary output constituted the governing rationality of documentary tradition in Iran during the early 1950s. And it continues, if in changed form, today.
In fact, through its nuanced institutional critique, Oskouei’s documentary enters a cycle of diplomatic jujitsu that is well beyond the control of the director and yet crucially relies upon directorial and diplomatic negotiation. By representing the Iranian juvenile center in a positive light, the documentary reverses the direction of claims of human rights violation back against the United States government for its harsh treatment of its incarcerated juvenile population. In doing so, Starless Dreams helps debunk the claim made by the Trump Administration and some hyperbolic mainstream media outlets that Iran is a pariah state that must be subjugated through imperial military attack and occupation. This subtle critique, in turn, satisfies internal censorship and guarantees festival participation and group screening inside Iran. At the same time, Starless Dreams faces a challenge to maintain documentary subtlety, as one critic also observes. It has to sacrifice something in order to safeguard its legal production and anti-imperial diplomatic function. The documentary’s absence of institutional critique may leave the foreign viewer puzzled about the systematic state of penitentiary institution in a country in which political prisoners face harsh treatment. This is the dilemma of documentary diplomacy in Starless Dreams. And yet, the documentary does successfully draw international attention to the otherwise completely invisible faces of these young women who perish in Iran at an alarming rate, not just due to governmental neglect but more so to a rotten patriarchal order, one which has been also challenged steadily and bravely by local and diasporic feminist campaigns.
Above all, the unfulfilled dream of Starless Dreams is a space of familial protection. In a key moment during which two women act out the documentary roles of the interviewer and the interviewee, one woman reasons that, instead of filming the incarcerated young women, the documentary should film their families. Despite and perhaps through the facade of interviewed faces, of individualized testimonies, the documentary reminds the viewer that the major unit of social space of family in Iranian society is in serious crisis. Every young woman in the film in fact yearns to return to a safe familial space, which may not exist for her.