In Nuria Ibañez’s The Naked Room, child psychiatrists and counselors ask questions of children from off screen, with the camera remaining in tight, if imprecise, close-ups on the respondents, their faces filling the screen with visible physical evidence of their past hardships. Starless Dreams director Mehrdad Oskouei likewise remains out of the frame while interviewing the girls living at a juvenile detention center on the outskirts of Tehran, though his voice, often calm and lacking discernible emotion, becomes a recurring marker of empathy and tolerance for the specificities of each girl’s story, even when it involves drug trafficking, grand theft auto, and murder. Oskouei’s monotone voice, which transforms from clinical to constituting a non-judgmental forum for honest response from the subjects, stabilizes Starless Dreams and reroutes the viewer’s judgment of individual antisocial behaviors and their immediate repercussions into an unspoken but clearly intimated condemnation of the societal flagellation of women at the hands of men.
In nearly every circumstance, the patients at the detention center articulate their crimes with relation to an aggressive or violent male figure. Oskouei avoids sentimentalizing the girls or tritely lamenting their stolen innocence by avoiding names and introductory materials of any sort. New interviews often begin without an immediately apparent purpose, and sometimes follow more observational scenes that capture the girls while eating in a cafeteria or paling around in their bedrooms. These editing choices serve as consistent reminders of each girl’s past and prevent the collective body of girls from becoming a symbol for the promise of a better tomorrow by consistently adding another experience of abuse to those already expressed.
Oskouei isn’t erecting a binary of joy and sadness. The girls he interviews seldom communicate their past abuses with tears in their eyes, a consistency which predominately derives from the filmmaker’s factual mode of questioning. By seeking details and biographical information over speculative assessments from the girls of how an event made them feel, Oskouei takes an ethical stance toward the potential to extract a response from his subject, making the documentary play less like an exposé on the psychology of these girls than a window into the tangible facets of their allegedly criminal acts.
Starless Dreams isn’t suspicious of each girl’s guilt but of the resultant actions are often conceived in response to chronic physical abuse. In one girl’s case, she decided, along with her mother and sister, to murder her father, whose drug use and recurring sexual assaults weren’t enough to garner the interest or action of Iranian authorities. The girl’s explanation remains low-key in vocal tone and adheres to a logical progression of events, so that the opting for murder arrives as a last-order response to the failure of surrounding institutions to intervene. Thus, a girl becomes a murderer in a court of law while the societal forces that cultivate the path to violence-as-self-protection are never called into question.
While the interviews here are largely free of overt emotion, Oskouei inserts moments of intense anguish as the girls phone relatives and interact with family members. These flashes of dread and torment often dissipate as quickly as they arise and serve to multiply the complexities of adolescent emotion, especially in response to trauma, and create an enriched sense of how an individual 24 hours presents itself as an arduous mountain of steps toward inner peace. Yet the film ultimately defines these girls not through their pain, but by their playfulness, most notably by allowing them to interview one another and help define the shape of a possible future. When one girl discovers that the documentary is being made to screen at local universities and not by the government, she mockingly speaks Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s name. In response, another girl asks her not to make their conversation political. Starless Dreams provides convincing and renewed evidence for the personal being political but, in turn, recognizes that politics always creates the person, not the other way around.