×
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.

Director:
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

  • Lamia Chraïbi Teams With Hicham Lasri

    Lamia Chraibi Teams With Hicham Lasri on Pan-Arab Supernatural Series 'Meskoun' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Lamia Chraibi, a leading producer of daring films from the Middle East and North Africa region, is developing “Meskoun,” an ambitious pan-Arab genre-bending series with Moroccan filmmaker Hicham Lasri (“Jahilya”) on board as showrunner. Chraibi (“Mimosas”) will produce the 14-episode series with her Moroccan banner La Prod, along with Mohamed Hefzy’s Egyptian company Film Clinic, [...]

  • Leap! first draft picks

    ATF: Leap! to Discover the Next Generation of Singapore Talent

    Singapore has launched a scheme to help find the next generation of filmmakers from the South East Asia region. Local content producers Blue3Asia and CreativesAtWork, with the support of Singapore’s Infocomm Media Development Authority launched the Leap!, a short film production scheme at the ongoing Asian TV Forum & Market on Thursday. Seven filmmakers from [...]

  • Mikhail Red

    ScreenSingapore: Mikhail Red Announces Philippines Western ‘Arisaka’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    Cult Filipino filmmaker, Mikhail Red will direct “Arisaka,” a film named after a World War II Japanese bolt-action rifle. “It’s a Western based on a famous massacre that happened in the Philippines,” Red told Variety. Philippines production house Ten17P, whose credits include Lav Diaz’s “A Lullaby To The Sorrowful Mystery” and Paul Soriano’s “Mananita,” will [...]

  • Stephen Graham Venom 2

    'Irishman' Star Stephen Graham Joins 'Venom 2'

    Stephen Graham is set to join Tom Hardy and Michelle Williams in Sony’s “Venom 2,” with Hardy returning as the titular anti-hero. Andy Serkis is set to direct, and Naomie Harris and Woody Harrelson are also on board. Sony had no comment on the casting. Popular on Variety The original film was a huge hit [...]

  • Sundance Winner Eugene Jarecki Prepares ‘Tuareg

    Sundance Winner Eugene Jarecki Prepares 'Tuareg Project' in Morocco

    Eugene Jarecki – two times winner of the Sundance Grand Jury Prize – for “Why We Fight” (2005) and “The House I Live In” (2012) – is preparing an untitled “Tuareg Project,” that he will shoot in Morocco. The pic will be produced by Addison O’Dea (“Discovery TRVLR”), and line produced by Moroccan producer Zakaria [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content