Mehrdad Oskouei’s Starless Dreams depicts the day to day life of a reform prison for young women in Iran. Most prisoners are under the age of 18, and most have suffered some kind of abuse at the hands of their family. The crimes range from drug possession and adultery to grand theft and murder. All the action takes place within the confines of the prison walls, mostly within the low-ceiling dormitory where they sleep and spend most of their days. In the center of the room, there’s a large, slightly tattered but well-maintained carpet, which becomes a kind of meeting space for family days and therapy.
It’s snowing when the film opens, and the girls are playing in the prison courtyard. At first glance, one could easily believe it was a school, because there are no shackles or guns, just high walls. Throughout the film, Oskouei informs viewers about the lives, families, and dreams of the inmates. Codes and poetry emerge as the language of choice, as the nature of a harsh reality becomes cushioned within stories and poems. Through shame and guarded apprehension, most of the subjects talk around the violence committed against them, and indiscretions are insinuated or shrouded in accusations of betrayal. A secret language emerges as most girls choose a code name for the film — monikers like “Nobody” and “651.” The girls are asked by the director, an ever-present off-screen voice, about the people who “bothered” them — another code for family members, who, in one way or another, pushed them towards crime. Many of the girls keep diaries as either a collection of experiences or epic fairy tales, which disconcertingly mix romantic desires and self-destructive impulses.
Trapped in a literal prison, the women also seem trapped in a spiritual one. An Imam comes weekly (maybe monthly) to lead prayers and answer questions, and the girls are occupied by questions of injustice. They are frustrated by the fact they are born without the freedoms of their brothers, fathers and husbands. The Imam’s answer doesn’t satisfy their concerns, and it only re-establishes the social reality, not the spiritual one. It becomes increasingly clear that no one has been listening to them, and that their family, leaders and the law has no concern for their voices or their well-being if they fail to live within social expectations, even under overwhelming pressures such as poverty, abuse or addiction.
Starless Dreams could have easily veered into hopeless dejection, but it circumvents outright tragedy by embracing a metatextual struggle. The director and crew don’t bury their presence, instead they allow their existence within the prison to shift the direction of the film. This technique helps underplay a kind of tragedy voyeurism and treats the girls as young women by allowing them power over their image. In engaging in conversation, director Oskouei treats his subjects’ voices and experiences with respect. He doesn’t speak down to them and allows them to interact with the documentary crew as they see fit, using the equipment to host an impromptu concert or to confide deeper desires. Perhaps as a means of respect, Oskouei reveals part of himself to his subjects, which they sometimes throw back at him. In tears at one point, “Nobody” chastises the director for telling them about his own 16-year-old daughter — “You shouldn’t have told us. She is being raised with love and comfort. While we were raised in rot and filth.”
In some ways, Oskouei’s involvement can be construed as invasive, but it feels integral. He has a voice and respects the subjects’ thoughts and dreams enough to share them and engage with them. He doesn’t speak at the subjects, he has conversations — he treats them as peers worthy of his respect. Oskouei’s documentary reveals loving and bright women, and the film exposes the social corruption that makes these women feel safer in prison than in society. The beauty of Starless Dreams lies in this discourse and how giving a voice to the voiceless helps give them power. It demonstrates that politics doesn’t have to be all bluster and no substance in order to make a sincere and real impact.
Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.