‘Starless Dreams’ Is a Riveting Portrait of the Girls in Tehran’s Juvenile Detention Centers


“The pain drips from the walls,” a young woman says, speaking to her interviewer, the filmmaker Mehrdad Oskouei, from one of the dozens of bunk beds in the common sleeping room of a girls’ “correction and rehabilitation center” near Tehran. One of many surprises in this patient, piercing documentary is how those walls — drably gray, mostly undecorated — offer, for many of the girls, some measure of comfort. “How do you think they’ll welcome you when you get home?” one girl is asked as she prepares for her freedom. 

She barks back, “Welcome me?” and adds, with flat certainty, “They’ll welcome me with chains and a beating.”

Rather than suggest the kind of foster or support services you might expect in America, an employee of the facility only says this: “Walk out that door and you are no longer our responsibility, even if you kill yourself.” It’s not a warning or an invitation to stay — it’s just a statement of the way things go.

Sometimes, those pain-walls even seem liberating. Gathered at a table for fast-food pizza, the girls clap and sing a popular song of heartache (“Oh let my pain be over”). One seizes the filmmakers’ boom mic and stands on a chair for her star turn. 

Another, perhaps in imitation of Oskouei, interviews a pal, using a mug as an ersatz microphone. She asks her friend how many things, before her arrest, she managed to steal. “As many as the hairs on your head,” the young woman replies. The role of interviewer slips back and forth between these two. “When you get out will you do drugs?” the one-time thief asks, and the answer is practical: “I can’t lie. If my grandmother takes me in, I will stop. But if she won’t, as I know she won’t, I will start using again.”

They smile all through this. It’s frank therapy as play, and the conversation soon turns even more honest and revealing, in ways true to the brilliant reflexivity of Iranian filmmaking: The girls, still conducting their pretend interview, discuss how they at first feared that this movie they were in was the work of the government, which would mean that they’re in greater trouble still. They say that they wish that filmmakers were instead exposing the truth of their families — that‘s what the world needs to see.

For now, the world needs to see this spare, revelatory film and hear these girls’ pained and sometimes proud confessions. They divulge their crimes, including assaults and murders. They speak of meth addiction and relentless abuse; they ask at group meetings why punishments in Iran are so much harsher for women who commit crimes than for men; they speak of family members in jail or awaiting the death penalty. One girl reports that her father, a robber and mugger, is now facing death after having been caught with meth in jail.

“I’m not as tough as I sound,” one admits, her face slight and girlish beneath her black headscarf. She just had to learn to be tough to survive on her own on the streets. In the detention center, addressing the camera, she at last faces someone interested in who she really is, in who she could be. The film follows none of these girls beyond those walls, leaving us to worry over them. When they’re released, who will they have to be?

Starless Dreams

Directed by Mehrdad Oskouei

The Cinema Guild

Opens January 20, Museum of the Moving Image