Mehrdad Oksouei has been making documentaries about marginalized people in Iran for many years, becoming an acclaimed filmmaker in the past decade. And yet he’s still relatively unknown in the U.S. Viewers in the New York City area are in luck, for critic and programmer Steve Erickson has devised a program for the Anthology Film Archives, the most complete in the country, dedicated to Oskouei’s work.
Oskouei, an independent filmmaker financing his own films through his production company, still hasn’t received the exposure he deserves in the States. There are many reasons for this, but one may in fact be the paltry theatrical release of his first feature, Starless Dreams (2016), his third work on children incarcerated in a juvenile detention center outside Tehran. In New York, it played a week at the Museum of the Moving Image, and only twice a day on Friday and weekends. Then again, the limited release was partly Oskouei’s doing: he didn’t want Starless Dreams to play in many theaters, only in academic and festival settings, lest he jeopardize the children’s life once they’re out of the detention center. Considering his dim status in the country, coupled with the rarity of seeing these works projected on a big screen, Anthology and Erickson’s program is a must.
Oskouei often begins his documentaries with a dedication. “This film is dedicated to those to whom nothing is ever dedicated,” starts My Mother’s Home, Lagoon (1999). In I Can’t Remember Anything About Afghanistan (2002): “For all children who have lost their homes because of a war.” The Other Side of Burka (2004) opens with: “Dedicated to women who are not given anything.” Such sentiments are a reminder that these works are respectful, that they’re first and foremost for those parties and whom they represent. Like Forough Farrokhzad, Oskouei’s documentaries give a voice to the voiceless.
Shot on a DV camera, like most of Oskouei’s aughts work, My Mother’s Home, Lagoon paints a stifling, hemmed-in life by the sea. 67-year-old Kobra cares for her resistant invalid mother. Their hardscrabble life depends on Kobra’s fishing in a cutthroat economy where rival fishers threaten to knock her off her small boat and steal her net. Back home, portraits of deceased male family members hang on the walls, looming over Kobra and her mother.
As seen in My Mother’s Home, Lagoon, and other works from the 2000s, Oskouei had a kind utilitarian approach to filmmaking. Edits were often “harsh,” frequently crosscutting from one event to the other, creating dialectical relations. In I Can’t Remember Anything About Afghanistan, a look at a school filled with displaced children due to the war in Afghanistan, Oskouei opts for blunt cuts, here providing close-ups of tear-streaked faces. In one moment, when the kids are at their lowest, the teacher shares a sense of loss with them, telling them that she hasn’t seen her children in years. None of them will go home again anytime soon.
The women in The Other Side of Burka, on the other hand, desperately want to leave home. Near the start of the film, a man tells the camera that his wife hanged herself with a veil from the ceiling fan. From there, Oskouei will show why a woman would go and kill herself. Taking place on Qeshm Island, The Other Side of Burka is a crushing look at oppressive patriarchal society in which Oskouei offers a portrait of women and the different ways they’re restricted financially, physically, mentally, and ethically. With his dialectical editing, in one moment Oskouei reveals the double standard for women by alternating shots of men dancing with abandon at a party (perhaps a wedding) with those of silence, of a husband and wife still and posing for the camera.
Restrictions, limitations, and infringements on freedom take on a new dimension in It’s Always Late for Freedom (2007), Oskoeui’s first in a trio of films pertaining to one particular Tehran juvenile detention center. This installment, and like the second film, concentrates on incarcerated boys. Moreover, Oskouei comes into his own as a filmmaker with the trilogy. As he told in an interview, inspired by Frederick Wiseman and his films, Oskouei limits the geography of his work, creating formal limits and rules in order to explore his topics with a depth and breadth necessary for maximum impact. And a detention center has the clear demarcation of space for which Oskouei can focus his stories within. In the center, for instance, sharing a common space where they sleep and play, the children in all the films establish a brotherhood or sisterhood. And once one of their own leaves the center, they cheer and cry for their compatriot.
A temporary release from the detention center is the subject of The Last Day of Winter (2011). Set primarily by the Caspian Sea, the center takes the boys on an excursion. Woven throughout his body of work (the setting for My Mother’s Home, Lagoon, a motif in The Other Side of Burka) are images of the sea. What attracts Oskouei to the imagery? Perhaps the sea, with its seemingly infinite body of water, conveys a sense of liberation.
Starless Dreams is the last of the detention center films, and perhaps Oskouei’s finest work yet. The feature sees him refining his sympathetic, transparent yet traditional (talking heads still make up the majority of the film) approach to documentary filmmaking. What also separates Starless Dreams from the previous two shorts is that girls are now the subject.
It took a long time for Oskouei to see the realization of Starless Dreams. It took seven years for him to get permission from authorities to make the film. He then spent two years working on it. Within that time, even though Oskouei was allowed just three months, he shot his footage in twenty days. When it came to filming the girls (most of whom had been betrayed by older men), he had to win their trust. However, by telling them about his young daughter, the girls opened up, so much so that, compared to the first two works, this one is the saddest. The girls are brought to the center for theft, for drug use, for killing a parent—all of which primarily stems from sexual abuse. Even though Starless Dreams is sad, it isn’t tawdry. Oskouei provides an even hand, looking at his material with a sharp, clear mind.
Throughout the detention center films, Oskouei asks the children questions. He asks about hopes and dreams, about fears, love, and ultimately their future. In Starless Dreams, he asks one of the girls what her dream is. “To die,” is her response. Later, she’ll change her answer once her estranged parents get back together after learning that she was continually “bothered” (a euphemism for sexual assault) by her uncle. She wants to live.
Mehrdad Oskouei is an essential voice in contemporary cinema, shedding light on those neglected, overlooked, and abandoned. Making films in a country with a rich and thoroughly established tradition of mixing and matching documentary and narrative filmmaking techniques, his work melds social awareness with aesthetic achievement. His critical, seamlessly hybrid cinema is one that raises consciousness.