ABUSE: In an Iranian juvenile detention center, a group of adolescent girls serve their sentence for the crime of murdering a male family member.
Carmen Gray
Freelance film critic and regular contributor to Modern Times Review.
Published date: November 21, 2019

«With your eyes closed, collect all your bad feelings and imagine them as a black orb.» In a rehabilitation and correction centre for adolescent girls in Iran, a meditation instructor is guiding inmates, who are in headscarves with their hands raised, through an exercise to exhale and expel their negative thoughts. What might, in another kind of film, seem a twee, new-agey moment, in Sunless Shadows becomes one that is disquieting, as the depth of the cumulative, trauma-fed darkness of this particular orb is hard to imagine. Most of the young women here are inside for the murder of male family members or assisting other relatives in such killings (some have a mother on death row). As the calmly observational documentary by Iranian director Mehrdad Oskouei, which opened IDFA, plays out, there is a building feeling that these killers are not to be condemned for their acts of desperation. Rather, they are symptomatic of a society that left them little other recourse. The real shadow here, in other words, might just be that of patriarchy.

A series of video messages, whereby the inmates are given a chance to address relatives, living or dead, by talking into the camera, acts as a window into their inner, conflicted turmoil, as complex feelings of guilt and shame mingle with residual love that was denied its proper outlet. For them, it might be cathartic — but consolation does not come so easily, if it all.

Hanging in the air

«What brings one to a point they kill their father?» The filmmaker, the only male presence, always off-screen, interviews the girls. His sensitive empathy has won their trust to answer questions that are at times this pointed. «He was mean — we didn’t get along,» says one of them, Negar, by way of explaining her patricide. It is one of those moments in which the devastating force of a culture of silence and understatement around the horror of domestic abuse, and a desperation too great to put into words, is felt at its fullest. Just what did «mean» entail, we wonder. Imagining the possibilities is somehow worse than if it were spoken. Chilling stories, spare as they are on detail, do come out, and the picture is one of family patriarchs acting with full entitlement to violently punish and control women they consider to be chattels, with the complicity of law enforcement and other arms of the state. A girl going to the police with a broken leg, only to have them say that she must have done something to warrant her father injuring her. A girl having her schoolbooks thrown in the trash, so that she couldn’t study. A girl earning cash to support the family, only for her father to spend it on prostitutes. A girl stabbing her father, to prevent him from viciously beating her mother, but failing to kill him, so being driven to the desert for a beating with a tire chain. A girl who says she married at age twelve to escape the «hell» of her home life, only to find that her husband was worse than her parents. And the sexual abuse, only hinted at, that hangs in the air.

Selective justice

«A total lack of support, either from society or family,» a young woman answers to the question of why one kills. In a society formidably weighted toward the rights of men, in which women can be forced against their will to marry, and men can refuse their wives’ divorce, options to escape intolerable situations are limited. There was «no legal way to fix things,» says one young woman who enlisted her boyfriend to help her kill the husband she was bonded to through arranged marriage. The Koran might call for the execution of murderers, but why are the hands of thieves not cut off, another asks of the selective application of justice. The desperation of being at the end of one’s tether is clear in one’s comment that she didn’t think about what would happen after she killed her relative — she «just wanted him to disappear.» Sobering, too, is the thought that these are among the few women who have taken extreme action to escape their scenarios. What of the countless other women who remain entrapped?

Just what did «mean» entail, we wonder.

Safety & respite

We begin to see the detention centre as a place of safety and respite, more than rehabilitation to prepare for a world on the outside that remains in its power imbalances unchanged. English-language lessons and pottery classes are among the many activities that seem geared to a genuine concern for the women’s development, some of whom are raising babies inside. But it is the camaraderie between them, as individuals who can uniquely understand what each other has been through, that seems to buoy them the most. One visitor, who had spent seven of her formative years in the facility, and is now free, says that it’s «boring outside» — another of those simple statements that seem to contain so much that is unsaid about her social disenfranchisement, and the lack of an equivalent community to provide a sense of belonging, or at least understanding.

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