Open City Documentary Festival 2020 – Focus: Sunless Shadows, The Invisible Observer


Hossein Eidizadeh looks at Mehrdad Oskouei’s relationship with the characters in his latest film, and how it has been informed by the films that preceded it. Sunless Shadows is available in Block 1 (Wed 9th Sept midday – Sat 12th Sept midnight BST),

Mehrdad Oskouei’s Sunless Shadows might be described as sentimental and opportunistic, or worse, as “a film made for festivals” that only looks to depict the dark aspects of Iranian society: a world where women are forced to kill their husbands, fathers, or brothers because they have been treated like animals by members of their own family. As if to refute these accusations, there is a scene early in the film where, following a heated debate, the girls turn towards the camera and call the director “Uncle Mehrdad”. Oskouei, it seems, has spent so much time listening intently to the film’s characters—a group of adolescent girls serving time for having killed men who had been abusive towards them; some awaiting sentencing, some facing execution when they turn eighteen—that they don’t see him as an intruder with a camera but instead as a family member, who, despite his gender, differs greatly to the other men they have known.

Aesthetically, Sunless Shadows is very simple. The girls talk from their heart, either in front of the camera or in dialogue with each other. Straightforward editing draws together a sample of exchanges and responses from the large amount of footage that Oskouei had shot. Despite this, the film should not be seen as a rudimentary exercise in depicting misery and regret. It shows an honest picture of a group of girls who may have no future in front of them, either because they could be hanged soon or because they have, through their involvement in the act of murder, lost all sense of the meaning of their life.

In order to reach more fundamental truths, Oskouei tries not to interfere too much with what is occuring in front of the camera, instead acting as the invisible observer. He also tries to avoid using any scenes which might seem staged (or stagey), and when he does include these, such as the one in which the mothers visit their daughters, he cuts abruptly when he feels that his subjects have become too aware of the camera. This strategy suggests that Oskouei—with years of experience experimenting with the form of documentary filmmaking behind him—hopes to show the relation between the state of unawareness that can be seen in front of  the camera that is recording their life, and the state they might have been in when they had enacted this violence they were compelled to commit.

Almost all of the girls say they were unaware what might happen after killing someone. They knew what they were doing was murder, but, as one of the mothers puts it, only a week later did they really realise exactly what it was they had done. Oskouei is reluctant to say why these girls acted in the ways that they did, what the reason might be, or who it is that could be responsible. (For that, you may want to watch Starless Dreams, the director’s previous film.)  Instead, he is merely an observer who wants us to see the life force in the eyes of these young girls whose life will be never the same, even if they are freed. As sad as the situation for these young girls may seem, Sunless Shadows triumphs as an example of a film that manages to be at once distant and yet entirely intimate.

Hossein Eidizadeh is a film critic and historian, festival advisor and translator based in Tehran, Iran. His writings on Iranian cinema and world cinema have appeared in a number of publications, in English, Italian, and Polish.

Tickets for Sunless Shadows are on sale now.