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‘Starless Dreams’ heartbreaking docu – Arab media landscape expanding, but opportunities not changing

A model presents a creation for Kenzo 2016-2017 fall/winter ready-to-wear collection fashion show on March 8, in Paris. (AFP)
A model presents a creation for Kenzo 2016-2017 fall/winter ready-to-wear collection fashion show on March 8, in Paris. (AFP)

At a girls’ juvenile detention facility on the outskirts of Tehran, the inmates are hard cases, locked up on charges ranging from car theft and drug possession to premeditated murder. Consider that they’ve known nothing but poverty and exploitation, often in the form of physical and sexual abuse, and consider, too, that few have ever shown them kindness and comfort, or anything resembling a normal childhood. Roger Ebert once called the movies “a machine that generates empathy,” and “Starless Dreams,” a heartbreaking documentary by Mehrdad Oskouei, is just such a machine. With the conceptual rigor and emotional directness associated with the best of Iranian cinema, Oskouei simply listens to the stories of those who have never been listened to before. Their shattering testimony, elegantly harmonized in a chorus of stolen childhood, has universal appeal and should significantly boost Oskouei’s international profile.

Following up 2008’s “It’s Always Late for Freedom” and 2012’s “The Last Days of Winter,” two roughly hour-long portraits of male juvenile delinquents, Oskouei spent seven years securing access to a female facility, and his persistence has paid off. Over 20 days, culminating in a New Year’s that some will and some won’t spend with their families, Oskouei and a small crew settled into a one-room lock-up where inmates eat, sleep and live together. With metal bunk beds lining the walls and a large communal space in the middle, the girls bond quickly and deeply, and for many, the surrogate families that form in prison are vastly preferable to the ones that await them on the outside.

Though Oskouei is never on camera, his gently inquisitive presence behind it is a guiding force. The girls are asked about the crimes that landed them in the facility and the domestic circumstances that might account for their actions. The euphemism “bothered” comes up a lot, in reference to sexual abuse from fathers and uncles. Their stories have plenty of common denominators related to poverty, drugs and broken homes, but the particulars are heartbreaking. One girl shows scars across her arm from a mother who burned it with a gas stove. Another calls herself “651,” because that’s the number of grams the authorities found on her when she was coerced into selling drugs. Still another talks about how she, her mother and her sister resolved to murder a father whose kindness had disappeared with addiction.

Through simple prompts, Oskouei is given a window into homes where, as one subject puts it, “pain drips from the walls,” but “Starless Dreams” isn’t a cavalcade of misery. With confinement comes safety, and with a roomful of like-aged girls from common backgrounds, the rare opportunity for friendship and fun. After opening the film with the grim ritual of fingerprinting and mugshots, Oskouei cuts to a scene of the girls playing vigorously in the snow, catching the carefree spirit of childhood in an unlikely place. Later, they play “spin the bottle” and “truth or dare,” drag the boom mic down for a song, and mimic his question-and-answer sessions by interviewing each other with a cup.

The arrival of New Year’s gives “Starless Dreams” a natural endpoint, but it also underlines a disturbing irony: Many of the inmates do not want to celebrate at home. Part of the boilerplate language of their release is that the facility is absolved of responsibility for their actions once they leave, even if they kill themselves. It’s horrifying to imagine the incidents that made such an edict necessary, but it serves Oskouei’s larger critique of society at large, which has failed these girls and then refused to take responsibility for that failure. Their parents aren’t the only ones guilty of not caring for them.


There are no postscripts to “Starless Dreams.” As a condition of access, Oskouei cannot follow his subjects after they leave. The best he can manage are shots of them being collected by their family and driven to fates unknown. But within the parameters of this extraordinary documentary, Oskouei’s curiosity and empathy restores some small measure of their innocence and allows them to be seen as children again — bright, playful, enthusiastic and tragically vulnerable. One particularly despondent girl calls herself “Nobody.” Oskouei’s camera, by peeling back that cloak of invisibility, makes her a somebody.

The media landscape in the Middle East is expanding, with distribution channels proliferating, driven by digital and pay-TV. But content diversification is moving at a much slower pace, and the local film industry is still not feeling much of an impact.

That was one of the key takeaways from a report presented Tuesday in Doha during the Doha Film Institute’s Qumra event which is becoming an important incubator and driver for Arab filmmakers. The Arabic word “qumra” is believed to be the origin of the word “camera.”

The report issued by Northwestern University in Qatar in partnership with the DFI underlined the proliferation of new TV channels — 159 between 2012 and 2014 — and pointed to pay-TV revenues almost doubling over the past five years to an estimated $975 million in the MENA region. It also opined that the recent entry of international SVOD players such as Starz Play and Netflix will be beneficial to consumers “through more non-linear programming at lower prices.”

But the current escalating competition for content in the pay-TV arena — which prompted Al Jazeera spin-off beIN to recently buy Hollywood mini-major Miramax — has yet to generate a significant windfall for the Arab industry, especially for producers making more highbrow content.

“Unfortunately the growth of TV channels doesn’t mean I’m making more money,” said prominent Egyptian producer Mohamed Hefzy, whose Film Clinic shingle strives to make quality movies that can play in multiplexes. “Generalist TV is a significant component of how I recoup my budget. But when I sell to free-TV they usually want all rights to fight the competition, so I don’t get to monetise on pay or SVOD,” he lamented.

Interestingly between 2012-2015 in two of the biggest MENA movie markets, Lebanon and Egypt, Arabic-language films performed better on average at the box office per title than non-Arabic films, despite the market being dominated by non Arabic, mostly Hollywood, fare.

Since 2012 Egyptian pics have accounted for almost the entire box office take generated from Arabic-language films in Egypt and the UAE. Meanwhile Lebanese films have pulled nearly two-thirds of box office revenues in their home market. (RTRS)

So although the richer and more densely screened UAE has outpaced Egypt in terms of the box office it generates, Egypt still remains by far the top country for production of Arab movies, especially commercial cinema. Almost 80 percent of all films screened in the UAE, Lebanon, and Egypt — three of the biggest markets — were produced in Egypt.

When it comes to production of more quality movies, however, there is a much greater geographic diversification, and also an interesting gender aspect: there are quite a lot of Arab women directors making “indie” movies.

Independent films from the Middle East are “twice as likely” to be directed by a woman said the study, which claims a 26% female directors’ representation and calls it “far higher than studio films in the West or the Middle East.”

By Scott Tobias

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