You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

IDFA Film Review: ‘Sunless Shadows’

Iranian docmaker Mehrdad Oskouei follows up the acclaimed 'Starless Dreams' with another piercing, perceptive study of abused young women in captivity.

Mehrdad Oskouei

1 hour 14 minutes

“Listen to women” has become the mantra of the MeToo age, though films that entirely follow its simple directive remain relatively few. “Starless Dreams” was one: Mehrdad Oskouei’s superb 2016 documentary engaged in aching, revealing dialogue with multiple teenage girls in a Tehran juvenile correctional facility, lending an open, sympathetic ear to their stories of familial and institutional neglect, and how it fed them into a criminal justice system that doesn’t always account for the abuse visited upon them. “Sunless Shadows” is another: a direct follow-up in which Oskouei extends his investigation of the same subject, it narrows the study a little further, focusing specifically on girls serving time for the murder of a male relative. In the process, it quietly but pointedly interrogates the notion of victimhood, while tacitly letting a damning essay on Iranian gender politics and hierarchies emerge through the words of his subjects.

If anything, “Sunless Shadows” sees Oskouei reducing his own presence as an interviewee further than he did in “Starless Dreams,” keeping even his most empathetic interjections to a minimum: The new film’s most striking device is a kind of video-confessional setup, in which his subjects speak directly and unmediated to camera in a private room, addressing either the men they allegedly killed, or other family members caught in the crisis. That lends “Sunless Shadows” a tone and purpose distinct from those of “Starless Dreams,” however closely aligned they are as companion pieces. Like its predecessor, Oskouei’s latest should rack up appointments and accolades on the festival circuit following its prominent premiere as this year’s IDFA opener; boutique distributors will demonstrate equivalent interest.

Popular on Variety

“Whatever you were, we didn’t have the right to kill you,” says one of the girls in Oskouei’s isolated video chamber: She’s speaking to the abusive father that she and her mother killed in self-defense, though her tone is philosophical rather than pained. “Sunless Shadows” finds a number of its young subjects debating each other — and sometimes themselves — on the conditions and limitations of their human rights; even within the group, feminism is far from an agreed-upon concept. “Why did you kill him and not yourself?” one girl testily asks another during a discussion, while domestic violence turns out to have its defenders among the group, along “she was asking for it” lines. Stoically challenging in the range of viewpoints it presents, the film realizes that listening to survivors doesn’t always mean agreeing with them.

Others are more progressively impassioned: Asked by the filmmaker what brought her to the breaking point of killing her father, one of his subjects briskly replies, “A total lack of support from society or family.” That spirit of prematurely jaded defiance is common to many of the inmates here; the tears are likelier to come from their elders, as we visit the adult facility where some of the girls’ mothers and female relatives are imprisoned. In the film’s most gutting passages, mothers are shown the video addresses their daughters recorded for Oskouei, in what may be the closest they ever come to conversing again. “I’d go back to that hell life just to be with my children,” a condemned mother desolately confesses.

In the wrong hands, such techniques could feel exploitative, yet “Sunless Shadows” never gives off the impression of extracting feelings from its subjects: Rather, it receptively gives them a platform they’ve hitherto been denied. The comfortable, trusting rapport between Oskouei (who’s never seen on screen) and the girls is palpable, not least when they casually refer to him as “Uncle Mehrdad” mid-conversation. Nor does the film seek to amplify or indulge in their tragedy to undue button-pushing effect: The greatest surprise of “Sunless Shadows,” particularly to those unacquainted with the director’s previous work, are the everyday pockets of humor and fleeting joy the girls find in each other’s company. Babies and ducklings are tenderly fussed over; games of hopscotch play out with glee; one girl’s birthday is brightly celebrated with cake and SpongeBob SquarePants party favors.

More than one of the film’s interviewees, in fact, admits that life within the facility’s walls is safer, calmer and more fulfilling than life outside it. For one inmate, being released from this conflicted but mutually caring community of young women has drastically unhappy consequences. It says everything that many of these long-mistreated young women finally find liberty in incarceration; the great grace of Oskouei’s subtly devastating film is that he doesn’t take it upon himself to say so.

IDFA Film Review: 'Sunless Shadows'

Reviewed at IDFA (opener, competing), Nov. 20, 2019. Running time: 74 MIN.

Production: (Documentary — Iran-Norway) An Oskouei Films production in co-production with Indiefilm. (International sales: DreamLab Films, Le Cannet.) Producer: Mehrdad Oskouei. Executive producer: Siavash Jamali. Co-producer: Carsten Aanonsen.

Crew: Director: Mehrdad Oskouei. Camera (color): Mehdi Azadi. Editor: Amir Adibparvar. Music: Afshin Azizi.

More Film

  • Major Film Festivals Are Becoming Key

    Major Film Festivals Are Becoming Key in Promoting Films From the Arab World, Africa

    Looking back at the lineups of key festivals such as Cannes and Venice this year, 2019 stands out as a banner year for movies from the African continent and the Arab world. During a panel hosted at the Netflix-sponsored industry event Atlas Workshops during the Marrakech Film Festival, Rémi Bonhomme, who works at Cannes’ Critics’ [...]

  • Robert RedfordRobert Redford tribute, 18th Marrakech

    Robert Redford Talks About Potential Next Film, U.S. Politics, Life Philosophy

    During a 90-minute onstage conversation at the Marrakech Film Festival, where he received an honorary tribute, Robert Redford spoke about his life-long quest for truth and freedom, and his political engagement through films, as well as a long-gestating project he’s considering producing, despite having announced his retirement. When he has spoken about the project, “109 [...]

  • For Sama SXSW Cannes Documentary

    'For Sama' Wins Best Feature at International Documentary Association Awards

    Syrian Civil War diary “For Sama” has won the best feature award from the International Documentary Association for Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts. The award was presented by Frances Fisher on Saturday night at the 35th Annual IDA Documentary Awards at Paramount Studios in Los Angeles. Popular on Variety The first-time award for Best Director went to Steven [...]

  • Two/One

    Macao Film Review: 'Two/One'

    Sometimes when you look out of an airplane window during a long-haul flight you get a view like the God’s-eye imagery that occasionally punctuates Argentinian filmmaker Juan Cabral’s intriguing debut: a dark, curved horizon rimmed with the glimmer of a new dawn. “Two/One,” the celebrated advertising director’s first full-length feature, seems born of this lofty, [...]

  • Colombia’s ‘Valley of Souls’ Wins Marrakech’s

    Colombia’s ‘Valley of Souls’ Wins Marrakech’s Etoile d’Or

    The 18th edition of the Marrakech Intl. Film Festival awarded the Etoile d’Or for best film to Colombia’s “Valley of Souls,” directed by Nicolás Rincón Gille. In his acceptance speech the director said: “Colombia is a country that people know very little about. But in this film I try to offer a glimpse of the [...]

  • SAFF Winners 2019

    ScreenSingapore: Philippines Projects Take Top Prizes at SAFF Market

    Projects from the Philippines took away the top prizes awarded Friday at the conclusion of Screen Singapore’s Southeast Asian Film Financing (SAFF) Project Market. The event is part of the Singapore Media Festival. The winners included director J.P. Habac’s musical comedy drama “Golden” about homeless gay seniors who reunite to perform as drag queens to [...]


    'The Favourite' Wins Big At The 32nd European Film Awards

    Yorgos Lanthimos’s “The Favourite” scooped the 32nd European Film Awards, winning best film, best comedy and best actress for Olivia Colman who previously won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Queen Anne in the film. “The Favourite” was leading the nominations along with Pedro Almodóvar’s “Pain and Glory,” Marco Bellocchio’s “The Traitor” and Roman [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content