Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Girls in prison, Iranian-style, in Mehrdad Oskouei's surprising STARLESS DREAMS

It begins with the usual, as the perp is fingerprinted and then those "felon" photos are quickly taken, as we follow that prisoner through the process. Except that here, the felon is a girl in her late-teen years, and the location is Iran. Uh-oh. But wait. After viewing STARLESS DREAMS, the new documentary from Iranian filmmaker Mehrdad Oskouei, rather than experiencing the usual "isn't-prison-awful!" sense you get from so many incarceration movies, you are more likely to feel that this may be the safest, kindest place for these girls in all of Iran.

Mr. Oskouei, shown at right, was evidently given extraordinary access to the prison and its inmates, and he was also able to gain the trust of both the girls and their guards in a rather extraordinary way. Consequently, his documentary is full of what certainly seems like "real life," as the girls chatter and laugh and play games and enjoy what seems -- against their experience in the outside world, either at home with their families or as runaways -- a comparatively idyllic existence.

We meet this gaggle of girls piecemeal and learn only haltingly about each one and her previous-to-prison life. It is not even clear exactly why some of these girls are here -- perhaps for simply running away or being on the outs with their blood family. In other cases we do learn why (patricide is one reason), and yet the details for even this render the murderer at the very least a kind of self-defense victim.

The documentary is often gorgeously filmed: sharp, clear, colorful and with an eye for both detail and beauty (where the latter can be found, at least). Oskouei also offers some lovely compositions and framing.

What makes the film so special, however, is the friendship the girls clearly feel for each other (they share such similar dreadful family backgrounds) and the liveliness and high spirits they so often exhibit.  Which point up even more strongly that the place of Iranian women, in both society and the family, is simply awful.

"Why are you crying, 651?" asks the filmmaker at one point. "Because her story is the same as my story," the girl answers, adding that she is called 651 because, "that is the number of grams they found on me." "How will your family welcome you home? another girl is asked. "With chains and a beating," she answers.

Many of the girls (perhaps most) want to stay in prison. Once you've heard their "family" stories, you'll understand why. They put on a sort of puppet show (below) during which they can hide behind those puppets/masks and say what they think. Yet, they do not seem at all shy about saying this even to a cleric who comes to visit, to whom they deliver some hard questions about god and justice. What we hear of his answers does not in the least suffice.

The movie cannot help but be ultra-feminist against the all-encompassing patriarchy that is Islam and Iran. As to her future, one young woman predicts that she will die in the gutter one day. "Don't you want to fight for a better life," the filmmaker asks? "Society is stronger than I am," she answers him.

One girl, at last reunited with her family (one of the few that seems even halfway bearable), tells us, "I'm just so happy: It feels strange." What happens to the couple of girls who actually go back to their families? We never learn the outcome of this or about what happens to any of the other girls. And the fact that the filmmaker was given such access to the prison does make me wonder if perhaps he was not expected to portray that prison in a good light.

Still, what he has given us in this portrait of Iran's younger generation of females is, while deeply disturbing, also something to cherish. From The Cinema Guild and running a brisk 76 minutes, the documentary opens this Friday, January 20, at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, New York. On Jan. 26 & 28: it will play the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; on February 10 it opens at the University of Wisconsin Cinematheque in Madison, and on April 14 at the Colorado State University/ACT Human Rights Film Festival in Fort Collins, Colorado. 

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