In this first film, Oskouei establishes techniques of quiet interrogation and observation that accentuate jarring content, such as the off-handed, and candid explanation of a 13 year old concerning his addiction to crack. As a side-line observer, Oskouei does not resort to dramatics yet catches the flow of days, and the emotional transitions, as well as the perpetual waves of new arrivals who inspire such intense empathy in these lost boys. Their days consist of their chores, religious instruction, and soccer. Still boys, they dance and sing together, dream of getting married, take art classes, and erupt into bursts of aggression against each other. The viewer may be surprised by the relative comfort of this Iranian facility, yet their families, their government, and their society have failed to provide the survival skills these boys need. They have the sense to wonder how they can “turn their lives around,” yet no one offers them answers. They leave the facilities terrified that they will only face more beatings, emotional and economic abuse, and may succumb to the enticement of drugs. Oskouei’s unobtrusive camera follows several young inmates out the doors as the new ones enter, suggesting the magnitude of this costly social problem.
Uncovering the roots of the issues depicted in his first film, Oskouei also begins his second film, “Last Days of Winter,” with a scene showing a boy having his head shaved, followed by clips of a group of seven young boys playing soccer in what looks like an ordinary afternoon of play marred with just a few flashes of testosterone that require mitigation by the attending adults. These young boys face incarceration for stealing bikes, cell phones, or sheep to support their drug habits, and sometimes those of their families, if those families have not already abandoned them. After the initial shock of an eight year old drug addict, the camera reiterates the innocence of these young boys, introducing the added complication of their low self-esteem and convictions that they are “no good.” Although one boy refuses to speak of his case, most show themselves to be untutored poets and philosophers, telling their unadorned, yet shocking stories of hardship to a quietly and persistent questioning by Oskouei. When one wide-eyed boy tries to clarify his story, he asks “Why would I lie?” Another boy maturely explains that one “loses his dignity to drugs,” while another confides that he does not fear “death but [remains] afraid of life.” Later another boy wonders if God will decide “to keep his warm hands on his cold shoulders.” The boys frequently reference their faith in God, a faith they have miraculously managed to maintain despite their short and violent histories.
Oskoeui’s lens never loses sight of the inherent innocence of these young boys, who care for each other, and laugh and dance together. Yet the boys only truly confide in their dolls or stuffed animals, which they carry around with them. Lying on their neat dormitory beds, these convicted thieves nervously and tearfully reflect on life, or sleep cuddled up with their toys. The scenes leave viewers both troubled and relieved, troubled by the circumstances which brought these boys, all of whom painfully miss their families, to this institution, but relieved that the Iranian government has provided some respite for them. As if instinctively acting as their own psychological therapists, the boys uncannily re-enact the court scenes which ripped them away from their families. In contrast, on a field trip to the Caspian Sea, the boys sing on the bus, play in the sand, and show their genuine capacity for humor and joy. Here, while Oskouei’s camera normally maintains a banality of film technique in order to contrast with the boy’s expressions of sorrow, on this exceptional field trip, the filmmaker allows himself more artistic shots on the beach and in the forest which illustrate the painful sense of isolation which haunts the boys. The “Last Days of Winter” records the lost days of seven springs, documenting in a straight-forward manner the heavy price that poverty has exacted on these boys and their society.
Oskouei finishes his bleak vision of Iranian youth with in his third film, “Starless Dreams,” which documents the incarcerations of young girls under the age of 18. Like the boys, the film shows these virginal girls playing in the snow and building a snowman. However, despite their shared camaraderie, the girls differ from the boys in their mature cynicism, and the sophisticated violence of their crimes. Although they too desperately miss their siblings, and, in some cases even their own babies, the girls do not generally miss their parents. Two of them express remorse over beating their mothers for drug money, while another calmly justifies her patricide. Clothed with the innocence of youth and their modest hijabs, the girls clearly show shame when they confess that a Sheikh, uncle or father “bothered” them. Found guilty of armed robbery, stabbing people or prostitution, many of these girls look upon their incarcerations as a respite from the streets and their unnamed “mentors.” Their clear faces appear in sharp contrast to their tales of crystal meth and crack cocaine addiction. Still, like the boys, they also spontaneously break into sad songs, or joyfully dance together. To celebrate the New Year, they decorate their dorm, and clean their rugs. In quieter moments, they comfort each other with a compassionate understanding.
Unlike the boys, when the girls move from one place to another, the guards handcuff them, and do not seem nearly as benevolent towards their prisoners. Like the boys, the girls also have an innate sense of poetry and justice. One girl describes “the pain that just drips off the walls,” and another dreams of dying, she is so ‘tired.” In a world that victimizes the victims, these young girls have to learn about, and be tested for AIDS. In one scene, the Sheikh comes to pray and offer a lesson on Human Rights. The girls quickly spring to life and besiege him with righteous questions on the injustices against females, and one boldly suggests that God should come back as a woman. Their questions and observations reach beyond the young Sheikh. If possible, these girls prove themselves so much more vulnerable than the boys, and while they may smile upon release, they leave knowing “everyone is against them.”
Upon being released to her father’s sole custody, one girl tearfully begs to call her mother, only to be told that “Once out that door, she is no longer her problem.” (One wishes Oskouei would do a documentary on the care givers of these lost children). As she rides off with her father, the filmmaker leaves the girl’s future a mystery.
In his film trilogy, Oskouei has perfected his unobtrusive camera technique to disclose the heartbreak of these young Iranians, as well as the harsh failures of their families and their society, which have failed to protect these innocent souls. His moving work will be of interest to human rights advocates, as well as those working with troubled juveniles, and youthful victims of drug abuse. All three films will leave even the most hard-hearted of viewers mourning the crimes committed against these children, and the broken promises of their lives.
Youth Behind Bars: The Iranian TrilogyIt’s Always Late for FreedomDirected by Mehrdad OskoueiCinema Guild, 2007The Last Days of WinterDirected by Mehrdad OskoueiCinema Guild, 2011Starless DreamsDirected by Mehrdad OskoueiCinema Guild, 2016
Artwork source Al Jadid. (From left to right) Top: Stills from “Starless Dreams”; Bottom: Still from “The Last Days of Winter” and “It’s Always Late for Freedom,” courtesy of Cinema Guild.
This article appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 21, No. 72, 2017.