DocPoint’s retrospective guest Mehrdad Oskouei decided at 15 to become a voice for those unable to speak for themselves.
When Mehrad Oskouei was 15 years old, he decided to kill himself. His merchant father had gone bankrupt numerous times due to his gentle-heartedness and no one was there to answer the family’s calls for help. Mehrdad felt like a burden that should be relieved from everyone’s shoulders. He wrote a suicide note, filled his pockets with scale weights from his father’s store and walked to the end of a dock.
Right then, a wine-coloured car (or as they would say in Persian, ‘sour cherry red’) drove to the side of the dock blasting cheerful music from its sound system. From inside the car, emerged a group of revellers ready to jump into the water of the secluded beach, wearing nothing but skimpy swimsuits despite living in an Islamic Republic. The splashing and frolicking went on for some time and afterwards the jolly crew jumped back into their miniscule automobile and sped off like the wind.
For the 15-year old suicide candidate observing the group from his hideout, this all seemed to convey a message – “Life goes on, whether I’m here or not.” He had a change of heart and returned the scale weights back to the store. The young boy decided then to become a voice for those unable to speak for themselves.
The fruits of this train of thoughts are Mehrdad Ouskouei’s documentaries. It is not a simple task to be allowed to film inside Iranian youth detention centres – especially those designed for girls – but with perseverance he managed to gain the trust of the authorities as well as the residents, becoming the voice for the forgotten children, almost as if as an homage to his father and grand-father who had endured hardships as political prisoners.
The epitome of Ouskouei’s work with the young convicts is his documentary Sunless Shadows. Like in many other masterfully made Iranian fictional films, the documentary brings up issues related to the ethical dead ends in which people are driven into by societal norms. Where is the fine line in between a cold-blooded murder and an act of desperate self-defence? The director never offers ready-made answers, even though he does approach his subject with great dedication and passion.
The director, currently situated in the middle of Teheran in turmoil, tells DocPoint that his most important guideline is to avoid prejudices and planning out dramaturgy of any sort at all costs. ”I approach the child convicts and mullahs without a predetermined agenda. The film is formed simultaneously while I explore the subject at hand.”
Oskouei points out that the kind of image Europe and the USA expect from an Iranian artist is something he is actively trying to avoid. For example, in his documentary on nose jobs, Nose, Iranian style, it might be refreshing for a Western viewer to notice themselves sympathizing with the turban-clad mullahs at times, instead of the young people fantasizing about plastic surgery.
What Oskouei is mostly praised for by his audience, is the fact that in his films the underprivileged are presented in a humane light without disregarding the problematic backgrounds, whilst also displaying their beautiful albeit unrefined wisdom. Not to mention their innocence – as is shown in The Last Days of Winter, when the director asks a cherub-faced convict if they could have anything in the world, what would they want. The convict’s answer? “Ice cream and cheese puffs!”
Translation: Aki Pitkäkoski
Mehrdad Oskouei’s Masterclass lecture will be held at Kino Regina on Thursday, the 30th of January, at 12:00-15:00.