The young women profiled in the Iranian documentary Starless Dreams are typical teenagers. They have snowball fights, play spin the bottle and talk about boyfriends. But as inmates at the Center for Correction and Rehabilitation of Young Adults outside Tehran, Iran, they also face charges of theft, drug possession and murder.
“Don’t make this political!” one girl chastises another after she mentions Iranian politicians in an otherwise playful exchange. Filmmaker Mehrdad Oskouei demonstrates in his compelling documentary that neither girl can avoid the intersection of the personal and political.
Oskouei has completed a trilogy of films about the incarcerated women, and each one required patience with Iranian authorities. For Starless Dreams, which screens at the UW-Cinematheque on Feb. 10, Oskouei completed seven years of research before authorities granted him three months of access to the facility’s girls-only division, including 20 days of shooting.
Problems that the inmates face will not be solved by their eventual release. The withdrawn Khatereh escaped from abusive parents, and prefers detainment over returning home. A flamboyant girl charged with adultery and armed robbery calls herself Nobody. She brags about misleading her judge regarding possession of a gun. Like other women we meet, Khatereh and Nobody alternate between street-wise belligerence and youthful vulnerability.
Interviews demonstrate Oskouei’s formidable skills as an empathetic documentarian. His off-screen voice guides and comforts the women as they describe their troubled pasts and uncertain futures. When he asks in shorthand whether anyone “bothered” them, the word cues the topic of physical and sexual abuse. He relinquishes control to Masoumeh as she fearlessly recounts the conditions that led her to kill her abusive father; the camera lingers on her expressions without cutaways.
After a prayer service led by a cleric, the young women ask pointed questions about the ways women and men are treated differently in the Iranian justice system (and Iranian culture in general). Oskouei cleverly omits the cleric’s direct answers, keeping the focus on the women’s defiance.
These women’s situations are certainly dire, but common Western presumptions about gender politics in Iran — that things are so much better here — should not provide false comfort. In fact, the questions raised by the women in Starless Dreams should resonate for anyone who participated in the women’s marches on Jan. 21.
Audience members interested in further discussion should stick around for a post-screening chat led by Golnar Nikpour, a UW-Madison history professor and scholar of Iranian cultural and political history.