Dir: Hamid Rahmanian.US-Iran. 2008. 92min.
The Glass House, Hamid Rahmanian's documentary about young women who have fallen through the massive cracks in Iran's Islamic society, is a sampling of stories from Iran's underclass, a portrait of life in Tehran today that is anything but flattering. The rare unofficial glimpse into private lives under a regime regimented by Islamic law should find a berth on public television or cable in the US and Europe. It is also sure to be seen widely on Middle Eastern satellite networks. Opportunities for constructing a dramatic feature around the forbidden stories of an ensemble of outcasts should not be underestimated.
The Glass House examines lives on the fringe. Exclusion is the price that girls have paid for transgressions that range from drug addiction to simply displeasing one's father.
We enter their lives through Omid e Mehr, a rehabilitation center for troubled youth in Tehran founded by a London-based psychotherapist, Marjaneh Halati, a stylish upper-class expat who looks more suited to the House of Chanel than to the halfway house that she established for 35 girls.
There's nothing titillating or lurid in Hamid Rahmanian's look into the lives of the contentious and vulnerable girls from 14 to 20. The film unfolds as those who try to help them seek explanations from the girls' families. In each case, layers of dysfunction emerge. As one counselor puts it, 'no one runs away from happiness.'
The film is a series of overlapping case histories. Sussan, 20, has a warm smile that hides the pain of being raped by her brothers. She struggles with drug addiction and with abuse from a companion whom she has fled. Samira, 14, is another drug addict, taken from her drug-dealing mother and from a loving but homeless father, and placed in a state institution. Nazila, 19, is an aspiring rapper whose politicized lyrics risk getting her into trouble.
Rahmanian, who acted as his own DP, gives the documentary a clinical look as he shoots the girls in their refuge and interviews their families on streets and in back allies. Yet in close-ups, during which the girls themselves speak, there is a poignancy in the way that innocence and experience intersect on each of their faces.
Had the director Jaffar Panahi not made two superb features targeting the persecution of women in Iran - The Circle (2000), about women working as street prostitutes after being thrown out of their homes, and Offside (2006), about girls who dress as boys who are arrested trying to sneak into all-male football stadiums -- the stories told by the girls in The Glass House might have a startling novelty. Even so, the film's dogged pursuit of each case is like detective work.
Unsentimental in its storytelling, The Glass House has a compassionate tone, but its motivational value is limited. Not all the girls rise above their circumstances, and the number treated at Omid e Mehr is a fraction of the cases out there.
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