‘HEFORSHE’, Merhdad Oskouai and “Starless Dreams”
By Dakota Hall/ Kosovo 2.0
This year’s DokuFest saw the launch of the Kosovo chapter of HeForShe, a UN Women campaign aimed at increasing gender equality and getting more men engaged in the movement for women’s rights.
HeForShe hosted the DokuKino screening of Mehrdad Oskouai’s “Starless Dreams,” a documentary about underaged girls imprisoned in a juvenile facility in Iran. Though Oskouai wasn’t affiliated with the HeForShe campaign before coming to Kosovo, he exemplifies its goals; he is committed to using his talent as a filmmaker and privileged position as a man to fight for the rights of women and others marginalized by society.
Oskouai spent seven years seeking permission from Iranian authorities before he could begin filming “Starless Dreams,” and consulted a wide range of people, including social workers, on how to go about the project. He developed very close relationships with the girls, which is evident in the film. They’re comfortable opening up to him and even call him “Uncle Mehrdad.” In Farsi, there are two different words for “uncle”: an uncle from your father’s side and an uncle from your mother’s side. Some of the girls had been abused by uncles from their father’s side, so he had them call him by the word for uncle from their mother’s side.
In one scene, one girl interviews another instead of Oskouai conducting the interview. After the screening, Oskouai spoke of how proud he was that the girls showed so much initiative in the filming, and saw that the girl was even imitating his interview style. “Sometimes I was the director; sometimes the girls were the directors,” he said.
Two of the girls are mothers and four are pregnant. Many come from families riddled with drug problems and have struggled with drug addictions themselves in the past. In one of the most moving interviews, one girl tells Oskouai that she’s there because she killed her father. She says her father had been a loving man until he developed a severe opium addiction and began beating her mother. It got so bad that one day her sister proposed killing him. She and her mother agreed, and the three of them did it together.
The girl says she likes being in prison because of the shared understanding between her and the other detainees. They don’t judge her for her crime because they understand what she had to protect herself and her mother from, and she doesn’t judge them for their drug abuse because she knows that’s the life she would’ve fallen into if her father was still alive.
The film highlights the systemic problems that the girls face, and leaves a strong impression that they’ve fallen through society’s cracks. The girls themselves are aware of this. Many fear leaving prison because they’ll end up back on the street, as they don’t have access to a shelter. One girl tells Oskouai that her greatest fear is dying in the gutter. When he ask if she has any hope for her future, she says she has no faith in society and rhetorically asks what society has ever done for her. “If society had given my father a job, he wouldn’t have become an addict,” she says. Another confesses to Oskouai that she’s not as tough as she seems, and that she developed her rough demeanor in order to be accepted by a street gang. “I used to be good,” she says. Oskouai is using the film to push for legislation that will help people caught in these cycles.
Mehrdad Oskouai’s work truly embodies the spirit of the HeForShe campaign. “I’m a filmmaker for women,” he said after the screening.
After the screening, HeForShe members gathered by the river to celebrate the launch and pledge support for gender equality. The launch was christened with “I See You Saw Me!” an installation by Kosovo artists Dardan Zhegrova and Tadi. The piece is a seesaw meant to represent the aim and necessity of an equal society. Men and women used the seesaw together, and promised to stay committed to the campaign’s ideals.
“We are all equal, we all need each other in order for things to function,” the plaque on the seesaw reads. “This installation in a public space highlights the importance of being together, the significance of the person across from you. In this way, we come to understand one another’s position, and in one form or another we can now say that ‘I see you saw me.’”
Isabelle Jost from UN Women told K2.0 that people who believe in gender equality should start by standing up to sexism in their everyday lives; it is hoped that the HeForShe campaign will influence the education and political spheres to use their power to enact meaningful change for women.
Follow the HeForShe campaign on Facebook and pledge your support here.
Kosovo 2.0 is DokuFest’s official media partner. This article is part of a series of pieces written during DokuFest 2016. Kosovo 2.0 is a print and online magazine bringing you voices unfettered and unafraid.