The Glass House [subtitled]

The Glass House

A lot of movies, a lot of documentaries, strive to be uplifting. Very few succeed to the degree The Glass House does.

Marjaneh Halati is an Iranian London-trained therapist who has returned to her home country, where she runs a rehabilitation facility/school for troubled teenage girls.

Some of their problems are the same as we’d see if this were a film about the U.S., or just about anywhere. Some have to do with that culture in particular. For instance, girls being raped by a family member and then being punished for being in the wrong in allowing it to happen.

One cultural phenomenon—in Iran or wider in the Muslim world I do not know—that I was not familiar with is a kind of formalized living together arrangement they refer to as “temporary marriages.” In many cases it seems to be an “out of the frying pan, into the fire” case of girls with poor or abusive home lives becoming concubines of a sort for males who can take them out of their household.

Of the movies I’ve written about so far, clearly the most similar to this is the documentary Born Into Brothels. I liked Born Into Brothels, I thought it had some real emotional power to it, but I’d rank this one at least a little above it. Born Into Brothels dragged for me at times; this one held my interest more consistently.

Born Into Brothels to me was also ultimately more depressing. It seemed to be more about how the efforts to help the poor children in Calcutta were few and far between, and it ended by describing how at least most of the rare apparent successes turned out to be illusory, how few if any of the children were really saved.

The Glass House paints a more mixed picture. Just about all of the girls we get to know seem to be helped at least some by the facility/school, and some are helped a lot and have at least somewhat promising futures when the film ends. Others, including one I was rooting for maybe more than any other, fall back into their old life and appear doomed at movie’s end. (The one I have in mind is a 20 year old who was beaten in her past and may have some brain damage. She seems to always have a grin, which at times makes her appear dim-witted or vaguely retarded, and at times makes her appear strangely content and good-hearted and able to rise above her circumstances. Maybe she’s a “holy idiot” type. I wasn’t sure quite what to make of her, but I found her strangely mesmerizing.)

It isn’t a purely “feel good” movie by a long shot, but I experienced it as a noticeably more hopeful one than Born Into Brothels. I found Halati herself to be genuinely inspiring. What’s heartwarming is the way the girls respond to her. They adore her, they never stop thanking her and telling her how much they love her, they swarm around her wanting to hug her and wanting some attention.

She appreciates it, but takes it all in stride. She says, and we can see it in her even if she didn’t verbalize it, that when you’re that committed to something, when you’ve found a way that you can truly believe in to do good in the world, it’s a privilege to work that hard at it, to give one hundred percent of yourself to it. It sounds like a cliché, but she really is like a mother to these girls, in the best sense of that. She sacrifices for their interests joyfully, she never stops fighting for them.

And she isn’t just dedicated and doing her best; by all appearances, she’s genuinely good at this. Somehow she’s had the political and bureaucratic skills to keep this place going in a culture that surely has many elements hostile to any kind of female empowerment like this. She has the administrative skills to supervise the staff of social workers who help her run the place. She’s seemingly got the ideal mix of friendship traits and professional counseling skills to give each girl just what they need at any given time, whether it be consoling when they’re in pain, firmness when they need a loving authority figure, or fair-minded arbitration when they fight with each other or a staff member.

I also like how she’ll go to the homes of the girls and tell the people what is and is not acceptable, carrying herself in a manner that demands respect. Again, I would think a particularly tall order for a woman in that culture.

She’s great. This film should be shown to anyone considering going into a field like social work, just to show that the right person in that field can do a lot of good and live a very fulfilling life.

I found it easy to be drawn into the stories of the girls, and to care about them and really pull for them. When one of them is defying the ban on women recording rap songs, or another is making substantial educational progress and putting herself on a path to go to college, it’s impressive and moving.

Yes, they can get catty with each other, and some of them fall back into drugs, but if anything they seem on average equal or slightly less fucked up than if you selected a group of American teenage girls at random. It’s pretty darn amazing with the kind of backgrounds they mostly have had, the kind of abusive family lives and oppressively sexist society they’ve had to deal with, that they so often manifest hope, strength, confidence, and loving natures.

Now some of that is a matter of which girls they chose to highlight in the film, how the film was edited, etc., but still it’s remarkable that they are as together as they are. It’s a mixed bag like I say, but there’s enough success, enough progress here to be genuinely inspiring.

I also found it interesting that the males in the movie don’t come across as uniformly negatively as one might expect. I especially liked the father of the 14 year old girl who had gone through drug rehab one or more times and was now staying at the facility/school until he could find a place for them to live. He just seems like a solid, hard-working, decent human being, doing the best he can. His wife had left him for another guy, and actively tried to get the daughter hooked on drugs—including by smuggling drugs into her at the drug rehab place—to make her more dependent on her (again, not really in keeping with the theme that this is a society where men are always the victimizers and women the victims). One way or another he’d lost their home and is now working extra hours and sleeping at his job, trying to save enough for a place to live. Regularly he comes to visit his daughter, humbly promising it won’t be much longer. She—being 14—is attached to him but also can be bratty and accusatory, which he takes in stride.

Like I say, just a decent guy doing his best.

Another guy who doesn’t come off as poorly as he could have is one of the ones “married” to one of the girls in one of those “temporary marriage” things. He is ganged up on verbally at the facility/school, challenged on why he won’t marry her for real. He’s far from some powerful, patriarchal, sexist exploiter. He’s a shy kid, probably not much if at all older than his “wife,” and he spends most of his time on camera grinning and looking sheepishly down at his shoes, affirming that he loves her but squirming when pressed on the marriage question. Not a hero certainly, but not much different from some dopey American teenager living with his girlfriend and reluctant to commit.

Even the one case of outright physical abuse that’s set up to be condemnatory turns out to be a little more nuanced than that. The brother of a temporary “husband” is confronted about why he struck the “wife,” and is reminded that his doing so is illegal, even in Iran. He points out that her parents explicitly gave him permission to exercise authority even through physical force if necessary, and he says that he did what he did in response to her using meth. That doesn’t justify it of course, but he comes across as a frustrated person using the only means he knows to try to prevent her from further ruining her life, not as some terrible ogre who beats women to satisfy his sexist, sadistic impulses.

Anyway, The Glass House is clearly worthy of a recommendation. Halati is an extraordinary person doing the most important work, not to mention the impressive efforts of the staff she has put together. And the girls aren’t just passively receiving help but are standing up for themselves and fighting for a decent life. All deserve much admiration.

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