Starless Dreams (Royahaye Dame Sobh)

HRWFF 2016: ‘Starless Dreams’ + ‘The Crossing’

Two films in the 2016 Human Rights Watch Film Festival -- Starless Dreams focused on young girls detained in Iran and The Crossing, following Syrian refugees -- consider the ways that souls might be imprisoned, inside and outside of actual walls.

“I feel a lot of pain here,” observes filmmaker Mehrdad Oskouei. “The pain drips from the walls,” answers Somayeh. She gazes into the camera, her face a map of shifting, excruciating feeling. She smiles slightly, glances to her left, then turns her attention back to her off-screen questioner.

Somayeh is incarcerated at a detention facility for girls under 18 located outside Tehran. She and the other girls share in one another’s suffering, she says: “When I talk about [my father] beating me, their eyes fill with tears because each one of them has been through the same, an addicted father who pimps his daughter out for drugs. They know this too well.” Still, Somayeh adds, “When I talk about killing him, that might be too much.”

This moment in Starless Dreams (Royahaye Dame Sobh) is startling, as much for Somayeh’s seeming serenity as for the horror of her crime. Screening at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York City, the documentary focuses entirely on the stories of Somayeh and her fellow inmates, as even the faces of their parents and their keepers remain obscured or just out of frame. Somayeh killed her father with her mother and her sister, after years of abuse. “There comes a time when you can’t take it anymore,” she notes.

The Crossing

It’s an idea that shapes another film in the Festival, The Crossing, which screened at New York and is also screening in Chicago on 20 June. Following the plights of Syrian refugees seeking asylum in Egypt and then Europe, George Kurian’s documentary is also focused on survivors’ stories, and includes footage shot during a seven-day sea journey by one of the travelers. Former IT professional Rami Aramoun looks into his own camera to explain that he hopes the world might understand that he and his fellow asylum-seekers “are not trying to leave only for a better life, maybe they are trying to have a life.”

Both films present harrowing experiences through images that range from intimate to collectively calamitous. In The Crossing, these images begin with formal, beautifully composed interviews conducted by photographer Kurian. Nabil describes himself as “a graduate of the conservatory”, and early on appears playing the oud, framed by ornate fabrics and filtered sunlight.

At film’s start, he and the others have already fled Syria for Cairo, where they find themselves under threat of arrest. They pay smugglers to help them, taking a frighteningly crowded bus ride to Alexandria and from there board a boat to Europe. “They told us the boat would be big, but it’s not,” one traveler observes, “That was all lies.”

Their voyage is surely difficult, a week on the sea, in hot sun and low on supplies, their skin burned and their clothes filthy with vomit and pee, as they do their best to tend to a small number of infinitely patient young children. Salwa, who has left her family behind in Cairo, describes it afterwards, “I was so scared I’d die and never get to tell my children what we went through. It was such a horrible experience,” she says, “I cried every day on the boat,” and she’s still crying as she tells this story. And yet, their ordeal only continues when they’re rescued by an Italian oil tanker and helped to shore in Genoa.

From here Kurian tracks individuals as the group is split up and sent to various refugee camps and endure the lengthy process of applying for asylum. “We all knew that on this journey we’d be treated as cargo,” says news reporter Angela. For a moment, she reunites with her reporter husband in Paris (he made the journey a month earlier), in a shot featuring the Eiffel Tower in the glorious background, but even as she enthuses that their new lives might begin, they’re shipped to the Kapellen Refugee camp in Germany, confined to small quarters and left in the limbo and the “culture shock” familiar to those in search of safety in a new place.

“It is well known,” observes Nabil, who’s sent to Berlin, “The feeling of alienation, of being a stranger, when a person leaves one country for another country where the culture and language are different.”

The film shows this challenging transition in different locations and for different individuals, as Afaf, a pharmacist, is unable to be hired while living at a camp in the Netherlands, and her son Mustafa is unable to enroll in high school or even to take language classes until they are approved for asylum. Repeated shots of tiny rooms, windows looking out on expanses of nowhere, and long hallways reinforce the sense that their lives are on hold. Rami says, “You are eating, you are sleeping, but you are not actually doing anything else. And along with that, you don’t have any money so you don’t have the liberty to go out, so it’s actually a prison.”

As much as The Crossing argues for a change in the arduous length and frustration of transition process for refugees, at least most of its interviewees make their way out of the camps and into new lives. Such hope is less visible in the brilliant Starless Dreams, where the girls find it hard even to express their feelings, let alone imagine transformation. Along with Somayeh, “Uncle Mehrdad”, as the girls call him, speaks with other girls in various stages of grief, anger, and hopelessness.

Starless Dreams (Royahaye Dame Sobh)

Some are on their way out, if only family members agree to come pick them up: these girls’ exits are all filmed in the same way. The camera — wielded by the gifted cinematographer Mohamad Hadadi — pauses to watch them standing against the prison wall, their plastic bags on the ground beside them, then tracking each as she makes her way, with a guard, to the checkpoint at the gate, and them, leaving with a parent or an aunt while your view remains obstructed by the facility fence. You never know what happens to the girls who leave, whether they return to their abusive situations, to addiction, to the streets.

As Uncle Merhdad spends 20 months with the girls, they come not only to trust him, but also to absorb and even mimic his effort to tell their stories. The girls live in a large room, each assigned a bunk bed (that looks like a cage) and all expected to participate in group meals and other activities. At one point, Shaghayegh and Hasrat pretend to interview each other, seated across the long dining table and holding a lavender mug between them as if it’s a microphone.

“Why are they taking you to the infirmary?” asks Shaghayegh. Her interviewee plays along, insisting that she’s only pretending to be “crazy”, even as the two girls look sideways at the camera, drawing attention to their play-acting and also their utter authenticity. “I act like this to make the other girls laugh,” says Hasrat, “I swear there’s nothing wrong with me.” Just so, the girls around them laugh.

As they go on to discuss their mothers’ lack of attention, their fathers’ cruelty, and their own addictions, the performers speak to their audience in the room as well as to you. “If you had a daughter, what would you name her?” asks Shaghayegh, “A daughter?” comes the answer, “I would kill her”, and with this Hasrat slashes at the air with her hand. “Would you also kill a son?” Hasrat smiles sweetly: “A son is a crown on his mother’s head.”

With this and with other confessions, the girls in Starless Dreams make clear their experiences of systemic oppression, their judgments by the clergy. Shaghayegh is deemed a “bastard”, she cries, even though she committed no sin: “I wasn’t there when they made me!” The male prayer leader here reminds her that she must be aware of what “society expects from us”. This is a lesson the girls can never not know.