Mehrdad Oskouei Gives Voices to the Voiceless

Mehrdad Oskouei’s Sunless Shadows (2019)

When Anthology Film Archives presented a retrospective of work by the renowned Iranian documentarian Mehrdad Oskouei early in 2018, Bilge Ebiri, writing in the Village Voice—it was a different time—urged New Yorkers to go: “It’s about as essential a film series as I can imagine.” Since then, Oskouei has made another feature, Sunless Shadows, which premiered last fall at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, where it won the award for best direction. Now, and on through August 30, Cinema Guild and New York’s Museum of the Moving Image are rolling out a virtual series of four films by Oskouei, all of them shot at the Center for Correction and Rehabilitation of Young Adults on the outskirts of Tehran.

It’s Always Late for Freedom (2007) and The Last Days of Winter (2011) are both collective portraits of young men, adolescent detainees whose crimes “range from stealing sheep, snatching handbags, and swiping cell phones,” as Taylor Wanbaugh noted at Vox in 2016. “They all have their own personal demons, trying to deal with being in prison at such a young age and coming from broken homes where they are unwanted. They all have their own personal demons, trying to deal with being in prison at such a young age and coming from broken homes where they are unwanted.”

In the second pair of films, Starless Dreams (2016) and Sunless Shadows, the focus shifts to the women held at the facility, and at Reverse Shot, Susannah Gruder finds that “Oskouei’s compassion, and even admiration for these women is palpable—he and his cinematographer Mehdi Azadi capture them with care and respect, highlighting their thoughtfulness, gentleness, and intelligence.” Oskouei has “explicitly stated his goal in making these films is to tell stories that women cannot tell themselves.”

At Screen Slate, Danielle Burgos suggests that Dreams is “more cloistered” than Shadows, even though anyone “only familiar with the carceral intensity of United States juvenile centers might be shocked by both films’ architecture and daily routine, relatively unsupervised and communally operated.” In Shadows, while Oskouei “continues his probing direct inquiries, he also removes himself, allowing the girls to self-record. Their candid messages are heartrending. One tells the father she killed she still loves him, asking why he showed his kindness to her with beatings.”

These women describe “horrific forms of violence in the plainest of language,” writes Diego Semerene at Slant. “Redolent of Claude Lanzmann’s approach, Oskouei strips his images to their barest bones as his subjects openly speak about their traumas, as if trying to avoid aestheticizing their pain.” For Kristen Yoonsoo Kim, writing for the New York Times, Shadows is “a startling, raw confrontation with Iran’s patriarchy.”

Back in April, when the virus first began tearing its way through Iran, Bilge Ebiri—now at Vulture—decided to check in on Oskouei. He had just begun work on a new film when everything shut down. For this one, he’d traveled to southeastern Iran to talk with male prisoners sentenced to life for drug trafficking and with their wives and children “who live in a large village without a man. I’m always worried about these prisoners’ lives.” Oskouei also faced the possibility that he would serve a year behind bars himself for making the film.

He did have some good news, though. By this point, authorities had recognized that prisons were becoming flash points as the virus spread. “The girls in my two latest films, Sunless Shadows and Starless Dreams, have all been released.” Still, Ebiri found Oskouei in an understandably reflective mood: “When we know that death is so close to us, to what extent can we make humanity more meaningful? How will our thoughts, actions, behavior, and choices during this pandemic be judged by future generations?”

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