Starless Dreams

Starless Dreams

Image by Starless Dreams

Daniel Nelson


Cinema can be great in showing us people and places we have never imagined, let alone seen. Like Starless Dreams.

Iranian documentary director Mehrdad Oskouei takes us into an Iranian juvenile correctional facility for girls and gives us astonishing, heart-wrenching interviews, a glimpse into lives gone horribly wrong.

Dysfunctional families seem the norm in the dorm: depressed, violent, helpless – and that’s the just the mothers. The fathers, when present in these girls’ lives, are often remembered as drunk or on drugs. Most inmates seem to have been “bothered” – that is, sexually abused.

Rape needs to be covered up and stay in the family, so telling your mother may simply provoke a slap.

But he adults are trapped, too, and are probably as angry and bewildered as the girls. It’s easy to see how patterns of behaviour can be repeated down the generations.

Despite the confusion caused by loving and hating at the same time, however, what’s striking is the girls’ clarity when talking about their situations (it’s important to say that their stories are neither challenged nor checked), temporarily safe in their protected environment and assured by Oskouei’s soft-spoken, avuncular, empathetic questioning.

Their crimes vary, from a young mother who steals to pay the hospital fees of her motorcycle messenger husband, injured in an accident after drinking; to a car thief who fell in with a bad crowd and insists, “I’ve stabbed someone but I’ve never shot anyone” – before admitting, “I’m not as though as I sound. I’m just pretending.”

This is a shocking watch but not gruelling, because the girls and their stories are so engaging and there are moments of humour and light: a spin-the-bottle game of truth-or-dare, an exuberant snowball fight, a puppet show, a mock interview with a cup as microphone, a New year celebration, a burst of song.

The pain is always a second away: the unutterable sadness of a face caught unsuspectingly on camera, the wailing phone conversations with family members, the unexpected heartfelt responses:

“What will you name your baby if it’s a girl?”


“And if it’s a boy?”

“I’d kill him.”

In one eye-boggling scene the girls, sitting demurely on the floor, angrily bombard a seated mullah with a barrage of awkward questions about the unfair and sometimes insulting treatment of women in the criminal justice system. The startled cleric blathers feeble banalities about the importance of maintaining the peacefulness of society before waddling thankfully off to find a less awkward audience.

A superb piece of film-making.

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