Mehrdad Oskouei’s concise documentary Starless Dreams is an exploration of intergenerational poverty, addiction, and abuse told through the stories of young women incarcerated in a juvenile detention and rehabilitation facility outside of Tehran. Interviews make up the bulk of the film, including questions from the off-screen documentarian as well as a memorably playful mock interview that the girls conduct themselves.
The best thing that the film does is demonstrate the unquenchable will to survive that landed these young people in a locked detention center. For many of the subjects of the documentary, a life on the streets was their only option, and they grabbed power however they possibly could (drugs, weapons, threats of violence) so that they had a chance to make it through another day.
While abusive family situations and seemingly inescapable poverty brought some women to tears, it was the memories of things they had been forced to do—things they knew were wrong—that weighed most heavily on their conscience. And the moments of joy in the movie struck the saddest chords, as you see what frivolous teenager shenanigans they’re capable of and imagine the kind of life they could be living in better circumstances.
The opening scene takes place in winter, as the girls are frolicking, fighting, running, and singing outside their grim facility that’s been transformed by a blanket of snow. The heavy snowflakes are the biggest surprise about Iran for a viewer coming in as part of the Seventh Art Stand, a national initiative co-organized by Northwest Film Forum director Courtney Sheehan. The excellent series highlights films from the seven countries included in Trump’s original Muslim travel ban, and puts sympathetic Muslim faces and stories on the big screen in an effort to educate Americans.
There’s a danger in coming in to this film in particular expecting a cultural portrait of the country, because with these examples, xenophobic ideas about the brutality of Muslim strangers could easily be reinforced instead of dissolved. Instead, come for a bittersweet and engrossing depiction of trauma and resilient youth.