'Starless Dreams' ('Royahaye Dame Sobh'): Berlin Review

Starless Dreams still 1 - H 2016
Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
Simple filmmaking grabs the heart.

Award-winning Iranian documaker Mehrdad Oskouei explores the anguish and joys of girls in a juvenile correctional facility.

Mehrdad Oskouei’s reputation as one of Iran’s finest documentary filmmakers grows film by film. Starless Dreams (Royahaye Dame Sobh), shot in a juvenile correctional facility for girls under the age of 18, is the perfect example of how powerful simplicity can be, when it’s underpinned by compassion for its subject. Without dallying or repetition, this brief feature doc gets directly to the point as it uncovers the disquieting backstories of addiction, molestation, and poverty that have destroyed the lives of its young subjects. The film took home the best director award at the recent Fajr Intl. Film Festival and, after its international bow in Berlin’s Generation sidebar, should be a contender at many events this year.

Oskouei’s small, all-male crew spent 20 days in the facility on the outskirts of Tehran, talking to the young women who gave them surprising access to their lives and feelings. With their cheap tattoos and missing teeth, their hair-trigger emotions and spontaneity in front of the camera, these vivid characters spring to life.

The film opens on a sweet-faced young girl half-hidden behind a big head scarf. She is messily fingerprinted, before it's revealed that she is being admitted into a locked facility, sometimes referred to as a prison in the English subtitles. Like the director’s two previous studies of boys living in correctional centers, The Last Days of Winter and It’s Always Late for Freedom, the film takes no issue with the institution itself (which many girls prefer to the alternatives: living in abusive homes or on the street) or the justice of their being arrested (ample motive comes out in the interviews.) It focuses entirely on the circumstances that turned them into unhappy law-breakers, and quietly points a finger at society’s indifference and lack of caring.

The girls readily admit where they’re coming from. Their fathers are crooks and crackheads who sometimes sent them into the street to earn money; their mothers are often addicts who beat and burn them and lock them up. One is terrified of going home to “chains and a beating.” Yet the family is their reference point and their obsession. Even though several have already had children and boyfriends, it’s their mothers and grandmothers they long for.

Gentle, wistful, without a lot of attitude, they express themselves in songs and drawings and puppets. To the camera they are quite direct. One spunky street girl calls herself “Nobody” and nonchalantly explains that she was arrested for “adultery, armed robbery, the brothel.” The beautiful Masoumeh describes how, along with her sister and mother, she killed her addict father because they couldn’t take his beatings anymore. When asked what her dream is, the melancholy Khateneh replies, “to die”. She sees no way her family can get back together.

As in his acclaimed The Other Side of Burqa, Oskouei (always off camera) asks many questions but spends most of the time listening to the women talk in their own voice. They seem old beyond their years. As one girl sums it up, “The times have made me grow old.”

Production company: Oskouei Film Production

Director, screenwriter, produce: Mehrdad Oskouei 

Director of photography: Mohamad Hadadi

Editor: Amir Adibparvar

Music: Afshin Azizi

World sales: DreamLab Films  

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Generation)

 76 minutes