The Glass House, a documentary about a one-of-a-kind rehabilitation and education center for at-risk teen girls in Tehran, could easily have gone for the easy uplift of an “Oprah” episode. The elements are there: Founder Marjaneh Halati, an Iranian expat now working as a successful therapist in London, exudes confidence and class and is all but worshipped by her young charges. The girls themselves are a screenwriter’s fantasy—a mix of troubled archetypes with humble dreams, difficult family lives and heartbreaking obstacles. But filmmakers Hamid Rahmanian (director and cameraman) and Melissa Hibbard (writer and producer) have avoided imposing any false uplift or narrative manipulation on the story that unfolds in front of their cameras. The result is an honest, compelling, often frustrating look at real life in modern-day Iran.
At first, it’s rather surprising how universal many of these stories seem. Our troubled lasses are suffering from self-esteem issues, fighting with parents over boyfriends and struggling with school. Many of their stories wouldn’t seem out of place in London or Los Angeles. But this is Iran, and there’s a deeper level to these gals’ pain.
When one teen relates (rather matter-of-factly) the harrowing story of being sent to jail at age 7 for the crime of being raped by her junkie brother, you realize you’re not in Kansas.
In Iran, women are socially, religiously and legally bound to stay at home—cooking and cleaning for the men in their family, taking whatever frequent beatings are doled out to them and keeping their mouths respectfully shut. It’s a system that probably didn’t work all that well in the Middle Ages, and is increasingly untenable in today’s savvy world culture. These girls know how bad they have it, and the scars can no longer remain hidden.
Some of them turn to drugs. Others run away from home. Others seek the usual forms of teenage rebellion. Tough-skinned Nazila, for example, harbors the secret desire to become a rap star. This sounds like a far-fetched goal in the middle of Iran, but it’s even tougher when you realize that, under Iranian law, women can be jailed for singing in public or recording a song. Fearful of any sort of “shameful” behavior, parents often escort daughters whenever they leave the household. It’s no wonder girls as young as 12 and 13 seek escape in the form of legally recognized “temporary” marriages.
The filmmakers try not to impose themselves too much on the film, relying on only occasional on-screen text to update viewers on certain situations or to make note of jumps in time. Despite his best, fly-on-the-wall efforts, Rahmanian still finds himself pulled into a situation or two, as when sexually abused Sussan asks him to help patch things up with her estranged mother.
Rahmanian isn’t shy about shoving his camera lens in people’s faces, and he captures some powerful emotions because of it. There are moments, though, when viewers might wish Rahmanian and Hibbard had stepped back, asked a few questions and probed a little deeper. Unanswered questions—particularly for outsiders like us—abound.
Still, there’s something to be said for that unbreakable wall of the movie screen that makes viewers curious but unable to climb into the scene and get the answers they want. Watching passively as the stories of these amazing, strong, fragile, brave, talented, defiant, monumentally screwed up kids unfold is a bit like watching a marathon in a hurricane. For every inch of progress, there seems to be an inch of lost ground. Nonetheless, the film never feels hopeless. The four main girls on which The Glass House trains its attentions are an arresting, unforgettable lot. It’s not hard to get caught up in their lives and realize that, in today’s Middle East, even their struggle counts as a victory.
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