Interview Mehrdad Oskouei

"Making a film is a collective undertaking: especially this film"

“An intelligent film about emotion.” This is what Mehrdad Oskouei hopes his viewers will say about Sunless Shadows, the opening film of IDFA 2019 about girls and women imprisoned for the murder of their fathers or husbands. “And these are complex emotions. These girls say that they miss their fathers; their mothers call on them to pray for them. They are often from respectable families, loving families even – so where does the fury come from? I wanted to know their motivations and their prior histories.” Oskouei has made several films about Iranian prisons. His next production, working title Moonless Years, also takes place behind bars. The filmmaker traces this preference to his own recently deceased father, who had been a political prisoner. “But I’m more interested in the human stories than the penitentiary system”, Oskouei stresses. “In the fiction films that were mainly made in Iran up to twenty years ago, such real stories were not clearly told. The films were metaphorical and the characters were vehicles for political or social messages. My story on the other hand is very simple. It is like two streams, a cold one and a hot one, which clash with one another. The story is not on the surface but in the subtext, the quiet undertow.” Oskouei compares making a film to weaving: combining different colours and fabrics, with a large dose of improvisation. “Form and content are in equal parts. This is why it is so difficult to make a complete, finished script in advance. First you have to determine the atmosphere and who the characters are before you know what will fit. And, more importantly: what does not fit. So for filmmakers like me, it’s very important to spend a lot of time on research – and on thinking. Support from partners such as the IDFA Bertha Fund is essential for this.”

Once the film plan for Sunless Shadows was ready, Oskouei had to wait another six months before receiving a permit to film in the reformatory camp for girls and the women’s prison where the mothers are incarcerated. “Once we were finally given permission, we got started straight away. I wanted to make the best possible use of the month we were given. During shooting, we had to stop twice: the first time after just two hours. Someone in the management of the prison opposed our presence there, and threw us out. For a while, I feared this would be the end of the film, but luckily we were allowed to continue.” In addition to the prison management and guards, the director also had to convince the prisoners themselves of his good intentions. “To the question of why I wanted to make this film, I replied that I have a sixteen-year-old daughter – about the same age as the girls in the film – and that I didn’t want her to end up in the same situation. They appreciated that.” Another helpful factor was that Oskouei gave the girls and women control over the camera. He allowed daughters to record video messages for mothers, and vice versa. “I don’t believe in dictatorial direction. Making a film is a collective undertaking: especially this film. But, more importantly, I think the film has a voice and gives a face to a group who would otherwise not be seen.” Oskouei noticed the effect this can have in the responses to his previous film, Starless Dreams (2016), about girls in youth detention. “This had a very limited release in Iran, but we organised special screenings for lawyers, law students and policymakers. Since then, judges have become less severe and girls under 15 years of age are no longer locked up in prison.”

Mehrdad Oskouei on stage at IDFA's 2019 Closing Ceremony, after receiving the Award for Best Directing in the Competition for Feature-Length Documentary for his film Sunless Shadows.