The British filmmaker and the Iranian anthropologist made waves in 1998 with their first project, Divorce Iranian Style, which fully utilised the unprecedented access they were granted for filming in an Iranian divorce courtroom.
The equally intriguing Runaway follows the stories of five girls who have found temporary refuge in a Tehran shelter to avoid the myriad traumas of their home lives.
Runaway highlights both the strangeness and familiarity of Iranian culture. The adolescent girls are often sulky, hankering after jeans and bomber jackets, straining against parental control. The women running the shelter alternate between showing compassion for the many tears shed and striving to prepare the girls for the return to family lives that inevitably remain difficult.
Twelve-year-old Maryam travels “one hundred and two” stops on the train to escape a brother who beats her with a cable, only to find herself bullied by another girl in the shelter. Setarah was forced into prostitution by her father and has no family to return to. When the shelter finds a job for her at a meatpacking company, she is movingly grateful.
Parisa flees from a father and brother who beat her randomly and keep her prisoner. Her brother arrives at the shelter and earnestly explains that Parisa was locked up to protect her virginity because she didn’t walk properly in public. He then passes out, presumably from the opium his father also abuses. Nevertheless, Parisa is moved by her brother’s profession of love (as well as by her father’s hug – the first she can ever remember) and excitedly leaves the shelter saying, “It seems I’m moving towards the happiness of my dreams.”
If Runaway is to be criticized, it is for being a victim of its own success. The girls’ stories are so engrossing, it is disappointing not to learn anything more about their lives. Whereas Divorce Iranian Style filmed some of its protagonists at home, Runaway was shot entirely within the shelter. The camera repeatedly lingers inside the front door, watching the girls reclaimed by their families walk away to uncertain futures. As menacing peripheral figures, Iranian men come off badly in Runaway, and like its predecessor, the film is likely to be criticized for its lopsided portrayal of Iranians. Having said that, Runaway – with its compelling glimpse into the domestic struggles of women in a very closely guarded country – should not be missed.