Documentary film festival IDFA opened Wednesday with Mehrdad Oskouei’s “Sunless Shadows,” the latest in a loose quartet of films about incarcerated teens in the Iranian director’s homeland. Developed with help from the IDFA Bertha Fund, the film takes viewers inside an Iranian juvenile detention center, where a number of underage girls are serving time for their involvement in some very serious crimes—the murders of male relatives—in circumstances often exacerbated by Iran’s predominantly patriarchal culture.
Orwa Nyrabia, the festival’s artistic director, praised Oskouei’s film not only for its message of support for vulnerable women but also for its humanist approach. “It’s a film that does not exoticize its subject matter,” he enthused. “It’s a film that is very authentic and sincere in its approach to its characters and its story. And I think this is a film that will be very, very accessible for international audiences – even though it is also very, very Iranian at the same time. This is a quality that one finds in very few films.”
Variety sat down with Oskouei prior to the film’s world premiere.
How did you get involved with these girls?
A few years ago, I began to think about how I could start my new film. I was thinking of a film about prison and prisoners. It was 2006, and everyone was talking about the football World Cup. And I was thinking about all the kids in prison—how do they feel when people of the same age are free? I focused on this topic and after six months [the prison] gave me permission for shooting there. In that moment, I knew my story would not be finished within just one film, so I decided to make three films about these kids.
How did that lead to “Sunless Shadows”?
First I made two films about boys under 15 years old in rehabilitation center [2007’s “It’s Always Late For Freedom” and 2011’s “The Last Days of Winter”], and then one more film about girls under 18 years old, which was called “Starless Dreams” [in 2016]. It was while I was making this film that I discovered the stories of these modern girls who had killed a father, or a husband, or a brother-in-law, and so I decided to make a film about these characters and for these characters.
For me it’s also very important because my father and my grandfather were prisoners. One hundred years ago my grandfather was a prisoner during the Reza Shah time, and 52 years ago my father was a political prisoner under the Shah, so I really wanted to know about the prison landscape.
Why did you want to tell a story about women?
For me, it’s very important, because I want to give a voice to voiceless people in my film. Ever since the revolution here [in Iran], we haven’t been able tell the most truthful stories about the situation for women in my country, and I decided to make a film about women and children for this reason. If anything is going to change in the future, and if anything is going to change the future of our world, I think children and women will be the ones to bring about that change.
What was it about these particular women that interested you?
These people who committed a crime… for me, they are not criminals simply because they are bad women or bad children. When I started researching them I began to see they were very innocent, very beautiful, and very smart. And the more I researched them, the more I began to think that it’s actually us that [has caused] the problem—they are in prison because of us, because of society, not just because they themselves did something bad.
How did you get their trust?
Well, I had to get the trust of the authorities first and then the characters I wanted to film. The authorities didn’t trust me, so I wrote to them and said, “My film is not about authority, it’s about human beings, about their suffering, their dreams, their pain. It’s everything about being a human being, not authority or power.” Still, they kept me waiting for permission, because never before had a camera gone into a women’s prison. We have seen fictional feature films set in that world, but not documentaries, not in real life.
What about the girls themselves?
When I told them I wanted to make film about girls in prison, they asked me, “Why do you want to make film about us?” I said, “Because I want to stop more girls like you going to prison.” And after a second’s pause, they asked me again, “Could you please tell us in one sentence why you want to make a film about us?” I said, “I have a daughter the same age as you.” After that, they gave me permission, and they began to trust me.