×

Film Review: ‘Starless Dreams’

Mehrdad Oskouei's extraordinarily empathetic documentary has the conceptual rigor and emotional directness of the best Iranian cinema.

At a girls’ juvenile detention facility on the outskirts of Tehran, the inmates are hard cases, locked up on charges ranging from car theft and drug possession to premeditated murder. Consider that they’ve known nothing but poverty and exploitation, often in the form of physical and sexual abuse, and consider, too, that few have ever shown them kindness and comfort, or anything resembling a normal childhood. Roger Ebert once called the movies “a machine that generates empathy,” and “Starless Dreams,” a heartbreaking documentary by Mehrdad Oskouei, is just such a machine. With the conceptual rigor and emotional directness associated with the best of Iranian cinema, Oskouei simply listens to the stories of those who have never been listened to before. Their shattering testimony, elegantly harmonized in a chorus of stolen childhood, has universal appeal and should significantly boost Oskouei’s international profile. 

Following up 2008’s “It’s Always Late for Freedom” and 2012’s “The Last Days of Winter,” two roughly hour-long portraits of male juvenile delinquents, Oskouei spent seven years securing access to a female facility, and his persistence has paid off. Over 20 days, culminating in a New Year’s that some will and some won’t spend with their families, Oskouei and a small crew settled into a one-room lock-up where inmates eat, sleep and live together. With metal bunk beds lining the walls and a large communal space in the middle, the girls bond quickly and deeply, and for many, the surrogate families that form in prison are vastly preferable to the ones that await them on the outside.

Though Oskouei is never on camera, his gently inquisitive presence behind it is a guiding force. The girls are asked about the crimes that landed them in the facility and the domestic circumstances that might account for their actions. The euphemism “bothered” comes up a lot, in reference to sexual abuse from fathers and uncles. Their stories have plenty of common denominators related to poverty, drugs and broken homes, but the particulars are heartbreaking. One girl shows scars across her arm from a mother who burned it with a gas stove. Another calls herself “651,” because that’s the number of grams the authorities found on her when she was coerced into selling drugs. Still another talks about how she, her mother and her sister resolved to murder a father whose kindness had disappeared with addiction.

Popular on Variety

Through simple prompts, Oskouei is given a window into homes where, as one subject puts it, “pain drips from the walls,” but “Starless Dreams” isn’t a cavalcade of misery. With confinement comes safety, and with a roomful of like-aged girls from common backgrounds, the rare opportunity for friendship and fun. After opening the film with the grim ritual of fingerprinting and mugshots, Oskouei cuts to a scene of the girls playing vigorously in the snow, catching the carefree spirit of childhood in an unlikely place. Later, they play “spin the bottle” and “truth or dare,” drag the boom mic down for a song, and mimic his question-and-answer sessions by interviewing each other with a cup.

The arrival of New Year’s gives “Starless Dreams” a natural endpoint, but it also underlines a disturbing irony: Many of the inmates do not want to celebrate at home. Part of the boilerplate language of their release is that the facility is absolved of responsibility for their actions once they leave, even if they kill themselves. It’s horrifying to imagine the incidents that made such an edict necessary, but it serves Oskouei’s larger critique of society at large, which has failed these girls and then refused to take responsibility for that failure. Their parents aren’t the only ones guilty of not caring for them.

There are no postscripts to “Starless Dreams.” As a condition of access, Oskouei cannot follow his subjects after they leave. The best he can manage are shots of them being collected by their family and driven to fates unknown. But within the parameters of this extraordinary documentary, Oskouei’s curiosity and empathy restores some small measure of their innocence and allows them to be seen as children again — bright, playful, enthusiastic and tragically vulnerable. One particularly despondent girl calls herself “Nobody.” Oskouei’s camera, by peeling back that cloak of invisibility, makes her a somebody.

Film Review: ‘Starless Dreams’

Reviewed at True/False Film Festival, Columbia, Mo., March 5, 2016. (Also in Berlin Film Festival — Generation 14plus.) Running time: 76 MIN. (Original title: "Royahaye dame sobh")

Production: (Documentary — Iran) An Oskouei Films production. (International sales: DreamLab Films, Le Cannet.) Produced by Mehrdad Oskouei. Executive producer, Vahid Hajiloui.

Crew: Directed, written by Mehrdad Oskouei. Camera (color), Mohamad Hadidi; editor, Amir Adibparvar; music, Afshin Azizi; sound, Hossein Mahdavi.

More Film

  • Taylor Swift Variety Facetime

    Taylor Swift Opens Up About Overcoming Struggle With Eating Disorder (EXCLUSIVE)

    In the new Taylor Swift documentary, “Miss Americana,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival Thursday night, there’s a montage of derogatory commentary about the singer that has appeared on cable shows over the years. One of the less nasty remarks: “She’s too skinny. It bothers me.” As it turns out, it eventually bothered Swift, [...]

  • The Painter and the Thief

    'The Painter and the Thief': Film Review

    Incredible. That’s the word that comes to mind with Benjamin Ree’s “The Painter and the Thief,” a stranger-than-fiction friendship story in which vérité techniques produce unbelievable results. I don’t mean to imply that this astonishing documentary isn’t truthful. Rather, I’m in awe of how things played out, and fully aware that there was a certain [...]

  • 'The Cost of Silence': Exclusive First

    'The Cost of Silence': Exclusive First Look at Sundance Doc on Deepwater Horizon Spill

    “The Cost of Silence,” a new documentary about the aftermath of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion, doesn’t just chronicle the worst oil drilling disaster in history. It looks at the devastating impact that the use of chemicals called “dispersants” had on Gulf Coast families. It turns out the so-called cleanup was not the success story [...]

  • Cuties

    'Cuties': Film Review

    Eleven-year-old Senegalese immigrant Amy (Fathia Youssouf) reckons there are two ways to be a woman. Amy could mimic her mom (Maïmouna Gueye), a dutiful drudge with three kids and a husband who’s just announced he’s bringing home a second wife. Or she could copy the “Cuties,” a quartet of brazen girls who wear tube tops [...]

  • Crip Camp

    'Crip Camp': Film Review

    If “Crip Camp” strikes you as a politically incorrect name for a movie about a summer camp where kids on crutches, in wheelchairs, and otherwise living with disabilities found it possible to feel included rather than ostracized, consider this: The irreverent, stereotype-busting documentary was co-directed by Berkeley-based sound designer Jim LeBrecht, a spina bifida survivor [...]

  • Summertime

    'Summertime': Film Review

    “Use your words.” I remember one of my sheroes saying that to a stammering 4-year-old decades ago. Here was a woman who’d dedicated her life to preschool education, whom I assisted for several summers, trying to get through to a tongue-tied little boy. The more he sputtered, the more upset he got, unable to express [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content