Sunless Shadows (2019)

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Following on from Starless Dreams (2016), Mehrdad Oskouei returns to the same Iranian juvenile detention centre to interview young woman convicted of killing their fathers, along with their mothers and sisters, some who are on death row.

Mehrdad Oskouei obviously has a commitment to raising awareness of the realities and inequities of young people detained and convicted of crimes in Iran. It’s Always Late for Freedom (2008) and The Last Days of Winter (2012) delved into the lives of young men in a male juvenile detention centre. Starless Dreams, that I reviewed at MIFF in 2016, was the result of seven years of lobbying to be given access to a women’s centre.

With Sunless Shadows, he has narrowed the focus of the telling, focusing on young women who have killed men in their family and juxtaposing it with interviews with their mothers and sisters who are incarcerated for the same crimes at an adult facility with much harsher penalties. Oskouei gives them the opportunity to sit alone in a room and record a piece to camera and this is where they open up about their pasts. Often beginning as a message to their victim, their open-hearted penance underlines the tragic details of their crimes.

Like with his previous film, we see that the detention centre provides them with something they didn’t have outside; safety and a community of women just like them. They spar and play, sometimes antagonistic, often full of warmth. There are moments when they assail each other with a barrage of questions about morality and whether it is women’s lot to be beaten and abused. The mothers are more circumspect, wanting only for their daughters to have a freedom that is no longer theirs. It is made clear that the mothers are on death row because of the inability of the other men in their families, their sons and brothers, to forgive them.

You can’t help but worry for these young people and how they will cope on the outside without support. With no father and a mother due to be executed, they emerge to a life with few prospects and little safety. It is heart-breaking to hear one young woman recount so matter-of-factually her many suicide attempts.

Although the topic is irredeemably sad, the detention centre seems as much a refuge as punishment, a brief calm in a troubled journey.

Have you seen this film? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

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