When Iran’s Fajr Film Festival invited its visitors to name their favorite Iranian filmmakers, nearly every North American or European guest chose Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi, and Asghar Farhadi. Important films like Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s A MOMENT OF INNOCENCE, Dariush Mehrjui’s LEILA, and Marzieh Meshkini’s THE DAY I BECAME A WOMAN, which played American festivals and art houses during the brief period in the late 1990s and early 2000s when Iranian films enjoyed an unprecedented degree of attention within film cultural discourse in the U.S., are now fading into undeserved obscurity. But there’s far more to Iranian cinema than Kiarostami and Farhadi. Documentarian Mehrdad Oskouei is a case in point.
Born in 1969, Oskouei debuted with a 10-minute Super-8mm short, ANOTHER BIRTH, in 1988, but came into his own in the early 2000s. However, only one of his films, STARLESS DREAMS, has received an American release. He’s far from the first Iranian director to tackle his country’s patriarchy, but STARLESS DREAMS, the culmination of a trilogy of films about teenagers and prison, is a particularly cutting depiction of the cycles of drug addiction and sexual abuse that land young girls in jail. (Oskouei’s interest in troubled teens may partially stem from his own difficult adolescence.) His earlier documentary NOSE, IRANIAN STYLE, reveals how Iran became the plastic surgery center of the world, mixing Islamic ideals about modesty with Western standards of beauty.
Oskouei spent years creating short films before finding his voice, and his mature work suggests a distinctly Iranian version of documentary filmmaking, standing somewhere between the nonfiction work of Frederick Wiseman and Kiarostami. While STARLESS DREAMS made a splash on the international festival circuit starting in Berlin two years ago and Columbia, Missouri’s True/False Festival devoted a partial retrospective to Oskouei in 2016, this series represents the most complete retrospective he’s received in the U.S. to date.