SUNLESS SHADOWS – Review by Diane Carson

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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.

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Diane Carson

Diane Carson, Ph.D., Professor Emerita, has reviewed films for over 25 years and has covered the Cannes, Telluride, Toronto, Palm Springs, and Sundance festivals. She writes for KDHX, 88.1 FM. St. Louis’ community radio. One of the founders of the St. Louis International Film Festival, she continues to serve on juries. A past president of the University Film and Video Association, she taught film studies and production at St. Louis Community College and at Webster University. Her new book, written with two colleagues, is “Appetites and Anxieties: Food, Film, and the Politics of Representation,” Wayne State U. Press, 2014.