Sunless Shadows scrutinizes Iranian women convicted of murder.
Iranian director Mehrdad Oskouei’s documentary Sunless Shadows explores the lives of six teenage women confined to a juvenile detention center for murder. All the victims are men: fathers, husbands, brothers-in-law. Through unmediated footage of daily interactions and direct address to a camera they control alone in a room, the subjects reveal their personal and political motivations.
Guarded by armed men, this community becomes a microcosm of Iranian society’s female oppression. As the women describe the catalysts for the murders they’ve committed, a wealth of details emerge: brutal beatings of a mother that opened the stitches on her head from previous brutality; blows with a tire chain; school books thrown away; earnings taken and spent nightly on other women; refusals of divorce. One blames a “total lack of support from society or family,” proved when, upon going to the police with a broken leg, she is told she must have done something to deserve it.
Asked (always calmly and from off camera) how she felt after the killings, one woman says, “After twenty-three years, you get revenge.” “At the time of the murder, you feel nothing but the joy of having done it . . . though after a week, you realize what you did.” It is heartbreaking to see them interact with their condemned mothers, whom they adore, or a sister, though all the women explain that male family members refuse forgiveness, even pantomiming executions.
During the day, the young women have English and pottery lessons, cook, sew beautiful clothes, play charades, celebrate a birthday, dote on baby Mohammad as well as five ducklings in their yard, and capture a pigeon trapped in their dormitory. Its subsequent release is an ironic metaphor; more apt is the title Sunless Shadows. Somayeh, who visits the dorm after two years’ ‘freedom,’ says she prefers the prison to life on the outside.
Significantly, the murderers aren’t let off the hook as they vociferously debate each other, declaring: “a woman has to take it, your husband won’t stray if you’re good, you should have killed yourself,” while another asks if these are the days of cavemen.
Oskouei has built a trusting relationship with these inmates after twelve years filming at Centers for Correction and Rehabilitation, also strikingly on display in his Starless Dreams. With unintrusive direction and restrained judgment (though the inhumane inequities are clear) Sunless Shadows offers unparalleled, poignant insight into Iranian society and what drives women to commit murder. In Persian with English subtitles, accessible at the Cinema Guild website.