March 7, 2002

Cornell Cinema

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It has always been well-documented in the West — especially of late — how badly women can sometimes be treated in extremist Muslim cultures. In fact, the idea has become a stereotype of sorts — a broad blanket statement that, for most people, is only based on what they may have learned from second-hand sources. Then a film like Runaway comes along to provide a new perspective on the treatment of women in the Islamic world.

The film is a documentary by respected filmmaker Kim Longinotto, who has earned a reputation by exploring the plights of strong-willed women from all around the world. In Runaway, Longinotto takes a long, intimate look at a shelter in Iran for young girls who have run away from home. All of the girls depicted are fleeing from domestic abuse, either from fathers, step-fathers, or brothers, and the film chronicles how these girls cling to and comfort each other in their most troubled times.

The documentary’s style is completely unobtrusive; the camera remains mostly just a steady, constant lens that peers into the lives of the girls in this shelter. The camera work is mostly limited to slow zooms and panning back and forth during conversations. Longinotto allows these stories to unfold at their own pace, with the filmmakers themselves retreating far from the proceedings. The cameras are completely ignored by all the participants; never once does anyone sit down and talk to the camera in an artificial setting.

Instead, Longinotto prefers to show us long conversations between the girls, in which they reveal what has happened to them, and how they’re feeling. The film is a series of very static scenes where not much happens in terms of physical action. However, each scene is packed with raw emotional expression.

In all of the girls living at the shelter, there exists a strange dichotomy that seems to be a central theme of the film. Every girl, no matter how badly she has been abused or hurt, still expresses her love for her family and a desire to go back home someday.

In one particularly extreme case, a girl has fled home after she was almost raped by her stepfather. Her mother, blaming the daughter rather than the man, beat her daughter and threatened to set her on fire. Still, when the mother came to see her daughter, the conflicted girl begged to be allowed to return home with her.

Although Western audiences will likely respond first and foremost to the unfamiliar structure of Iranian society as depicted here, Longinotto obviously does not take such a black-and-white view of this situation. Certainly, the unequal treatment of women is an important subject here, but Runaway seems to be more concerned with the common strength that these young women feel when they are around one another, and the way they draw off of each other for support.

The men in the film are mostly depicted with more of a detached air than the emotional treatment given to the runaway women. In most cases, we have the accounts of the girls about the abuse they have received, but no comment from the men. In fact, beatings seem to be almost accepted by and large in the society–at one point, a counselor asks one of the girls if she did anything to “deserve” being beaten. This is one disturbing aspect of the film; the willingness of some of the counselors to send these girls back to homes where they had previously been subjected to abuse of the worst kind. It is hard to tell what Longinotto thinks of this, since the camera is as completely objective and invisible in these scenes as in the rest of the film.

Ultimately, the goal of Runaway seems to be to portray the effects of a culture on its strong young women. The film does not make any overarching moral statement or judgment on the Iranian society, but allows viewers to come away with their own perceptions considerably widened.

Archived article by Ed Howard