Preview: Documentary, Iranian Style: The Films of Mehrdad Oskouei

Featured Critic; New York City, New York
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When one mentions Iranian cinema, the names that most often come to mind are such directors as the late Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi, and Asghar Farhadi. More knowlegedable aficionados may also be able to mention such filmmakers as Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Dariush Mehrjui, Mohammad Rasoulof, and Samira Makhmalbaf (daughter of Mohsen).

However, there's another acclaimed filmmaker that well deserves to be in the illustrious company of the directors I've mentioned above, but is undeservedly far less known. His name is Mehrdad Oskouei, a documentarian who's been making films since the late 1980s, and has won numerous awards for his work at home and abroad. His films since the 2000s have incisively interrogated Iran's patriarchy, poverty, and stark class differences, with a fine visual style that matches the power of his empathy toward the marginalized subjects of these films. His best known works are his trilogy set in a youth detention center on the outskirts of Tehran, consisting of It's Always Late for FreedomThe Last Days of Winter, and his finest work to date, Starless Dreams, set in the girls' wing of the prison, featuring often heartbreaking stories told by the women of how they ended up there.

Anthology Film Archives, with their retrospective "Documentary, Iranian Style: The Films of Mehrdad Oskouei," sets out to correct audience's lack of familiarity with his remarkable work with the most comprehensive survey of his films to date in the U.S. His major works, along with early shorts will be screened throughout the retrospective, which runs from February 23-28.

Below are my picks of particular highlights of the retrospective. For more information, visit Anthology Film Archives' website.

STARLESS DREAMS (2016)

“The pain drips from the walls.” So says one of the subjects of Starless Dreams, one of the most emotionally moving and visually accomplished films of the past few years. Set in a young women’s juvenile detention center on the outskirts of Teheran, Iran, Oskouei has created a film with elegant simplicity and great power. Much of this power comes from simply listening to the harrowing stories the women tell on camera, gently prodded by the filmmaker’s off-camera queries.

The young women have been placed here for the same kinds of crimes that you’d hear of in any prison in the world: prostitution, drug use, armed robbery, carjacking, murder. But what’s heartbreaking about these particular women’s stories, is how abuse from their families, and society’s failure to protect them from this abuse, has placed them where they are now. The euphemism “bothered” comes up frequently in Oskouei’s questioning, as in “Has anyone bothered you?” This refers to sexual abuse, which many of the young women testify to, always at the hands of family members. Besides rape, they’ve been burned, forced to sell drugs on the street, beaten, chained, endured having parents addicted to drugs, and many other degradations. It’s no wonder that one of these young women, feeling cast off and abandoned by those who should have cared for her, and by society at large, refers to herself as “Nobody.”

But it’s not all a simple litany of misery. The camaraderie and the bonding between the young women, who laugh and cry with each other, play games together, and are generally supportive of each other, come through as strongly as their pain. They’re still able to laugh and joke with other, and even with the filmmaker, as they mock being interviewed by him. This prison also functions as a shelter from terrible families and a hostile society, so being released and being forced to go back to the circumstances that placed them there in the first place, is not often a happy prospect.

The film is set in winter, close to New Year’s; the ice and snow form an appropriate visual backdrop to the desolation of these women’s lives. However, this extraordinary and deeply compassionate film leavens their sad existences by giving them a voice, and allowing them to express their pain, a right which so many around them have denied them.

(Feb. 23, 7pm; Feb. 26, 9pm)

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Mehrdad Oskouei