“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.
“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.