Sunless Shadows marks director Mehrdad Oskouei’s second exploration of life in an Iranian girls prison. His previous effort, Starless Dreams, takes place at this same prison and looks at a variety of different crimes in its study of the inmates. Shadows narrows its length and focus. Each of the girls focused on is in here for the same crime: The murder of an abusive man in their life. Typically, this is a father, but one has murdered her husband. Each of them committed their crimes under the age of eighteen. They don’t show remorse, but relief.
This isn’t a film about prison or murder, though. Rather, it focuses on the relationships between women and girls. Oskouei is particularly interested in their relationships with their mothers. Many of these girls aided their mothers in these murders. Their mothers remain on death row while the daughters are awaiting an eventual release. Oskouei facilitates contact between them, filming the daughters’ messages to their mothers and playing these videos back for them in the women’s prison. These scenes are particularly heartwrenching; their mothers show deep grief for their daughters’ situations. Nevertheless, the mothers don’t regret their crimes either.
Despite these scenes of grief, there are just as many scenes of laughter and joy. Toward the end of the film, the daughters go to visit their mothers and revel in reunion. In the girls prison, the inmates all seem to be good friends. They engage in deep discussion, play charades, and bathe the ducklings that live in the yard. It’s striking how carefree they are considering the circumstances. The most interesting character here is a girl who has recently been released from prison but keeps coming back to visit with her friends. She tells the camera that she misses it, that the world outside is boring. The girls all agree that life in prison is better than with the men who abused them, in a world that doesn’t afford them freedom anyway. Freedom is redefined here to be any state in which one is not being abused. The prison treats them well and they have made friends, affording them the greatest amount of freedom most of them have ever experienced.
The film, of course, doesn’t condone murder; it simply wishes to explain the reasoning behind these kinds of crimes and show empathy for their perpetrators. These are young, intelligent women. They were abused and they saw no other way out. This is deserving of our understanding and Oskouei delivers it in spades. His treatment of his subjects shows a rare depth of kindness, something other documentarians should strive to emulate.
Sunless Shadows played at the 43rd Portland International Film Festival. Info about the film and future screenings can be found at www.dreamlabfilms.com/sunless-shadows/
Main photo illustration by Haley Riley
This article has been updated with relevant information about the film, a fresh new illustration from our print edition, and with minor grammar corrections. Due to the spread of coronavirus many screenings for the film festival were cancelled to reduced the possibility of more people contracting COVID-19.
Sunless Shadows plays Tuesday, March 10 at 6 p.m. at Cinema 21 and Saturday, March 14 at 8:30 p.m. at Whitsell Auditorium.