“Why is a man’s blood worth more than a woman’s?” is a question in a human rights lesson towards the end of Starless Dreams. A documentary within a female prison, for those under the age of 18, resonates with a classroom teacher such as I. Rarely would I connect my daytime profession with review-writing, but Starless Dreams forces me to acknowledge it. This particular rehabilitation centre is in Iran and their broken families and male-dominated society refuse to deconstruct what forced these children to turn to crime.
But be under no illusion; these girls are drug dealers, murderers and assaulters. Their crimes are deserving of a sentence. What director Mehrdad Oskouei does, is ask quiet, considered questions that dig deeper. Behind the veil of gang-membership and criminality, the children are often victims of abuse via fathers and mothers who are addicts themselves. They have beaten their mothers for drugs. But they were married off at 14, pregnant at 15 and then forced to sell drugs by their own husbands. While these inmates are potentially angry, dangerous youths, they are also victims of a society that has failed to protect them. If we are all capable of murder, then when a girl, Somayeh (after plotting with her sister and mother), kills her abusive father, we can imagine ourselves making such a criminal choice. “The pain drips from the walls” she says.
“I haven’t been a good daughter. I made her suffer”, explains one girl. In another moment, Oskouei lingers on some scrawled graffiti on the wall: My Mother is My Life, it says. Children in Iran have seen the horrific treatment of their mothers; their aunts; their sisters. A pregnant child, when asked about names says “Elena for a girl”. For a boy? “I’ll kill him”, she says, half-joking. Witness to such horrors inevitably connects you to those experiences of the abused women around you.Starless Dreams highlights how the children are expressive, intelligent artists, keen readers (copies of Herge’s The Adventures of Tintin lay around) and they all hold a dark sense of humour. An inmate is referred to as “651” – the amount of grams of drugs found on her when she was arrested. But haunting interviews will forever stain your mind: Oskoue asking each girl “Was anyone ‘bothering’ you” and always met with the affirmative, “yes” – “my aunt’s husband”, Khaterah says. He asks “What’s your dream?” and a resigned girl says “to die”, pausing, “I’m tired of living”. They are scarred; self-harm across their arms with constant talk of killing themselves. Even the babies that visit are filled with such heartbreak. Mothers who don’t want to lose their child and feel guilty about not supporting them. There is such resentment for poverty but a celebration in the simple things – “washing babies is fun” we’re told.
Crucially, I can see students I’ve taught in these young women. Barely the age of a Year 10 or Year 11 girl, as a teacher, I understand the cheeky, invincible attitude of a teenager. The Iranian juvenile delinquents are so similar to teenagers in every British classroom: the quiet bookish one; the loud-mouth joker; the sensitive-but-bolshie one. There’s a fun scene as inmates pretend to interview each other, singing and playing with the mic, as all fame-hungry kids would when a documentarian visits and lets your muck about. One difference to students I know, is how these girls, squeezed in a room with wall-to-wall bunk beds, have relatives in prison too – in one case, brothers with only the death penalty at the end. Families don’t send their daughters clothes. It is clear, something is wrong: they don’t come across as criminals but rather independent and strong women who refused to follow the strict rules of their society. Ultimately, Starless Dreams can be defined by one quote: “My family is no good”, and until this is understood as the crux of their criminality, these poor young women walk out of the centre with little hope. Starless Dreams reveals the hypocrisies or rehab in Iran, and captures it in a startling and eye-opening manner.