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.
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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.