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. …

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