By the time this posts, I’ll have started fall semester classes at OSU. One of my classes for this year will be a documentary film course, which will require us to see the upcoming feature Whose Streets?, about the Ferguson riots. I’m excited about the class, seeing the film, and discussing it in said class, and more than that I’m excited about seeing more documentaries in general, and how good all the documentaries I’ve seen from 2017 are. Yes, it’s just four films, but any quartet as indelible and varied in content as Casting JonBenet, Raising Bertie, Last Men in Aleppo, and Starless Dreams is one worth cherishing and holding onto, perhaps through the end of the year. Starless Dreams is the one I’ve most recently seen, and the one that strikes me as most illuminating a corner of the world I’d have no way of learning about without it. Then again, how could a story about the inmates at an Iranian prison for teen girls not feel like a unique and rare piece of life to experience? Even better is that director Mehrdad Oskouei is committed in showing us everything about the lives of these girls, not just the tense negotiations between their families and prison officials about being released and discussing the crimes that put them in there, but everything these girls have done to build up a community inside the prison. Everyone is friends with each other, and with the film crew, who they rarely seem that precious about being in the company of outside of their interviews. The girls play games with each other, throw parties when someone is being released, and attempt to make the best out of a situation they have no illusions about. These moments of levity are a boon to the whole proceedings, and Oskouei’s greatest gift is that he’s able to flesh out the fullness of these girls’ lives while articulating the personal, familial, and systemic failures that put all of them in this place, and the ones that could keep them there too.
As impressive as it is for Oskouei to be so generous towards these girls, what makes it even more fantastic is that all of these girls are, to a one, guilty of their crimes. Everyone is very candid about this, not just in their interview sequences but occasionally in ordinary conversations. Interviews aren’t carried out in one take, necessarily, but you get the sense that each conversation is its own session, the minimal editing that takes place within the scenes all the more interesting because Oskouei is neither maudlin with these girl’s suffering or withholding of it. Do they start laughing? Do they ask him questions? Is it something he does, not them? We learn fairly early that the girls aren’t particularly reverent of Oskouei’s project, at one point snatching the boom mic and singing together before the singer and another girl conduct their own mock interview, buzzing about why on Earth these people are here for them. But even this blossoms into asking the kinds of questions Oskouei surely would have, as one girl openly admits not just her crimes but the upcoming prospect of her release and the very real fear that her grandmother is not going to retrieve her from prison. At this point she’s expecting grandma not to come through for her, given the woman’s reticence to confirm it and is terrified that she’ll end up back on the streets unless her grandmother takes her in. Grandma is also scared she will go back on the streets, which is why she may not take her back, leaving this child to rage that her grandmother will only be right if she is left without a home, with nowhere to return to but a life of crime.
The paradox of what will happen to these girls, who are not allowed to be freed without being taken home by a family member, is a question that haunts the entire film. Questions about the family lives of these girls are almost always the points in interviews where they cannot help but cry, out of fear or shame or regret. All of them are asked if male relatives have “bothered” them in their childhoods, and if this had anything to do with their criminal lives. Many of the girls say no, though they often confess other terrible things the fathers and uncles in their lives have done to them. One is pimped out by her father for drug money. One worked with her older sister and mother to kill their father/husband out of fear for their lives. One told her mother that her uncle, the mother’s brother, had “bothered” her before, and is beaten and runs away from her family because her mother does not believe her. A few are married, one deeply in love with her husband and has their child with her for the back half of the film, where everyone in the prison takes it upon themselves to help take care of the child. Three times we watch someone be taken home, and each has its own connotations and reactions from the girls and their family members about the environment she’ll be returning to, or if she’ll even stay at home.
Even more revealing is the instances in which their stories overlap, or when the girls talk about how they know their stories are the kinds they were warned about at an even younger age. One girl talks about having wanted to be a lawyer or someone in the justice department to help out girls who would be in her situation, while the girl who killed her father says part of her motivation was in protecting her little sister. All of them are aware that their stories aren’t inherently unique, and are avoidable not just on a personal but a systemic scale, pointing out the imbalanced application of justice in Iran between men and women. Many are especially upset at the idea that they’ve disappointed and shamed their mothers. two girls even crying because part of their crimes include attacking their own mothers for drug money. One girl’s interview is suddenly shared with her bunkmate after she begins crying in recognition once she hears about the first girl beating her mom to obtain drug money the woman didn’t have. The presence of the baby is enough to make many of the girls visibly speculate on ideas about their own motherhoods, to think about their own families, and what it means for any of them to be raising a child in this capacity.
Can you believe the film I’ve just been describing would even look for a glimpse of light in these girls’ lives? Would you believe the whole thing starts with everyone playing in the snow, mashing piles of it in each others’ faces and building snowmen and staging a concert? If it’s astonishingly mature for these girls to have such candor about their lives and insights into the world around them, it’s just as valuable that Oskouei does not frame these girls as victims or objects of pity in any way. They are given the space not just to breathe but to live, to be children. The trust and candor that Oskouei has gotten from and reciprocated towards these girls is remarkable. Soon enough it looks like the reason they’re so flippant around his camera is not because of disinterest, but because they’re so comfortable and at ease around this man and the team he’s assembled to document their stories. I kept thinking of the scenes in Precious that we spend in Ms. Rain’s classroom, more or less watching each moment play out in their own peculiar rhythms as the characters went about their lessons. Whatever pasts these characters had, this was the moment they were able to be people and exist freely in this space. That book ends with the other girls is Ms. Rain’s class giving summaries of their own lives, devastating accounts that correspond with the interviews these girls give about as well as the classroom scenes line up with the scene we see the girls socialize.
I apologize here for not being able to name any of these girls, even if the film does briefly tell us who everyone is. It’s not as though the film spends a great deal of time reminding us of their names the way that, say, How to Survive a Plague or The Interrupters or Raising Bertie do. We are treated to an introductory title card at the start of each interview, and a lovely “thank you” credit to each of the girls by name, without attaching a face to any of the names flashing before us in the film’s final moments. The only name that stuck with me was one who went by “651”, since that was the number of the grams of crack she had on her when she was arrested. It feels unfair, after Oskouei has gone so far into showing them a full, rounded, multi-faceted people that I keep referring to them as, well, “them”, or “the girls”, or something along those lines. Faces, statements, expressions, conversations, all of these stick with me more than their names. Is that fair, that the combined impression of their lives affected me so much and yet the only name I can remember is a number? Would they give a shit? Maybe it’s short changing the girls to think they don’t care, but they clearly have bigger things to worry about. Oskouei probably might, given how much attention he put into giving them so much humanity and such a rounded presentation of their lives. But he also works to make each girl identifiable and keeps track of them, so that when each one is focused on we know who they are. This is the girl who killed her father; this is the one who loves her husband; who is waiting for her grandmother; who ran away from home; who doesn’t want to go home. We know who each one of these girls are, not just by their faces but by their stories, even if we can’t remember their names. The story of all of them perhaps carries more impact than their individual ones, a treatise on Iran and its families and its criminals through the stories of girls who end up in prisons like these, all of them aware of how they got there and what they could’ve done to avoid it. All of them aware of what they have to do to never come back. All of them making a life for themselves, a community for each other, trying to make the best of an impossibly difficult situation.