When he was 15, Mehrdad Oskouei decided to commit suicide. As he tells it, it was an act of both hopelessness and selflessness: His father had gone bankrupt after being imprisoned, and the family had reached the end of its financial rope; young Mehrdad wanted to drown himself so that there would be one less mouth to feed. But then, as he waited with ropes and weights late one night on the shore of the Caspian Sea, he saw something in the darkness that made him change his mind.
Here’s how Oskouei related the incident to writer and programmer Amir Soltani: “A car arrived out of nowhere…and more people than it could conceivably fit started coming out of it, playing loud music on their sound system and began dancing and swimming in the water. That moment felt like a catharsis, like a reminder that the world would go around and life would continue whether I was gone or alive.”
Now Iran’s foremost documentary filmmaker, Oskouei has spent the past couple of decades exploring the restlessness, despair, and resilience he sees around him. Much of this work can now be seen in Anthology Film Archives’ excellent “Documentary, Iranian Style: The Films of Mehrdad Oskouei,” the most extensive retrospective to date of the director’s pictures in North America. It’s about as essential a film series as I can imagine.
Most of Oskouei’s major films clock in around 50 minutes. His first proper feature-length effort, Starless Dreams, got a theatrical release in the U.S. last year. Set in what is effectively a prison for teenage girls — a facility on the outskirts of Tehran called the “Center for Correction and Rehabilitation of Young Adults” — Starless Dreams follows the lives of its young subjects as they play, pray, gossip, and clown around. Many of them are there for drug-related offenses; some of them have kids of their own; they often share backgrounds of abuse, poverty, addiction. Life inside the walls, however, isn’t necessarily one of cells and repression and discipline. We sense a kind of community forming among these girls, many of whom have been abandoned by their families in the outside world.
Starless Dreams is the final entry in a trilogy of works set at the Center. The previous efforts, It’s Always Late for Freedom (2007) and The Last Days of Winter (2011), looked at the boys’ wing of the institution. Oskouei says that he was inspired to make Starless Dreams during the production of the earlier films: One day, he saw two young, seemingly innocent girls being led in shackles to another part of the facility behind a high wall; it was only then that he realized there even was a section for girls. Getting the permission to shoot there would take him seven years.
In all three films, Oskouei mixes interviews with the inmates, vignettes from their lives, and brief bits of stylization to create a tapestry of longing and self-negation. Each child that comes across Oskouei’s cameras seems to hover between a slow-burning desire for oblivion and a more immediate imperative to survive. They speak to him — at times calmly, at times tearfully — of molestation, poverty, addiction, even murder. He shows them watching television and playing soccer, horsing around, fighting, screaming, calling home in agony; they are alternately scrappy and despondent, bursting with life and utterly devoid of hope. They want out, but they’re also afraid to leave. But they play, too: The boys re-enact their trials, with each kid taking turns pretending to be officials. The girls seize the microphone and perform for the cameras; later, they pretend to be Oskouei and mock-interview one another. Moments of throwaway poetry sneak in: A boy in The Last Days of Winter laments the breakdown of his family; not long after, while he and his fellow inmates play in the surf during a group trip to the seaside, Oskouei cuts to a family walking along the beach. A gust of wind raises a cloud of sand that envelops the family in a gray haze — as if we might be watching a memory, or a dream.
Much of what Oskouei depicts across the three films is similar — put a bunch of teens in a room together, and it turns out that they’ll do a lot of familiar things — but there’s also a striking contrast between how the girls and the boys treat their respective releases. For the girls, even though their stays in the detention center are often just a few months, a profound disquiet comes across their faces when they consider the world beyond these walls. To them, the future promises rejection, violence, and shame. One girl says she expects to die; another predicts she’ll just fall back into addiction; yet another anticipates being beaten with chains. (It’s telling that we never see any bars in the prison itself; the only time Oskouei films through bars is when he watches the kids depart.) The boys, for their part, look positively bouncy when they leave. Of course, they too are headed for a hard life — often with the abusive and neglectful families who helped land them here in the first place — but in this society, they’re the only ones who might be allowed second chances.
All three films, and their subjects, truly come alive in Oskouei’s onscreen interviews. Over the course of a brief conversation, a kid can go from cocksure to forthright to inconsolable. And yet, the films never feel exploitative: The director, who seems genuinely friendly with the kids, and whom the kids often refer to as “uncle,” has done the work of gaining their confidence, and he frames them with respect, love, and artistry. The faces onscreen, even at their most vulnerable, never reveal everything. In The Last Days of Winter, we see one child claim he’s a good boy in the same breath that he admits he’d steal every last dollar his parents had. “I’m such a dumb, crazy animal, I’d even steal from my parents,” he proclaims loudly, then takes a hesitant, unreadable breath. Has he revealed too much of himself? Or does he recognize the falsehood beneath his claim? Was he boasting, or confessing? Is it even our place to know? We talk often of humanism in cinema, and Oskouei’s work certainly has compassion and empathy. But it also delivers something more: Evidence of an inner life, and of a reality beyond the frame, that hints at the unknowable and elevates the films into the realm of the sublime.
For all that, the work on display can be quite diverse stylistically. Oskouei’s two best-known early efforts, The Other Side of Burka (2004) and Nose, Iranian Style (2005), could not be more different in tone. The first is a look at a rash of suicides among women in a remote community along the Caspian — a place where the strictures on female dress and behavior is harsh even by Iranian standards. It’s probably the saddest, and quietest, picture Oskouei has made, filled with harrowing interviews punctuated by long passages of silence. A grieving young husband contemplates why his wife chose death, even as he reveals the very attitudes that might have driven the woman to hopelessness. The camera follows funeral processions, and enters rooms where people committed suicide. We see the broken ceiling fan from which a woman hung herself.
Nose, Iranian Style, on the other hand, looks at Iran’s fascination with nose jobs — a phenomenon related not just to the prevalence of Western standards of beauty but also to the fact that, with all females required to wear hijabs, noses are among the few things women can show in public. (That’s still not the full story, however, for, as the film makes clear, nose jobs are extremely popular among Iranian men, too.) Nose is expansive and playful, filled with occasionally boisterous interviews — Iranian high school students have a lot to say about nose jobs, believe it or not — while Burka is grim and focused. Yet both works portray a fundamentally terrifying restlessness among their subjects, one that Oskouei seems to understand on a fundamental level — that inner voice that tells them they’re not good enough, that the world as it is has no place for them as they currently are.
That sense of existential inadequacy lingers: Was that what young Mehrdad himself felt on that night along the Caspian, as he contemplated the unthinkable? Maybe that’s why he understands these subjects so well. And why he knows exactly the right questions to ask. In Last Days of Winter, he interviews a boy whose crime was stealing motorcycles.
“What kind of motorcycle do I look like?” Oskouei asks his subject.
“A Pulsar…because you’re a bit chubby and you’re round,” comes the cheerful response.
“What motorcycle do you look like?” the director then asks.
“A Yamaha 100,” the boy says, his smile now taking on a harsher edge.
“Because I’m a wreck.”
The boy is 12 years old.
“Documentary, Iranian Style: The Films of Mehrdad Oskouei”
Anthology Film Archives