Under the Shadow
A mother protects her daughter from a supernatural force that has somehow gotten inside their home. It is the basic plot of hundreds of films, but in this case, the home is in 1988 Tehran in the midst of the Iran/Iraq war and the mother is a former political activist now blacklisted under a repressive regime. Babak Anvari’s first feature, which made its world premiere at Sundance, was the triumph of the midnighters. It was truly terrifying in the immediate moment to moment, but also had a great undercurrent of dread from location and atmosphere. Apparently, the reason is, as I learned speaking with the writer/director, Anvari is easily frightened. “I am such a scaredy cat,” he tells me, “I’m afraid of anything and everything. If I’m left alone at home I start freaking myself out and say, ‘Oh, what is that sound?’ Or like, at night, and my poor girlfriend, I wake up: ‘Is there someone standing in that corner?’ As a child it was ten times worse.”

Anvari grew up in Tehren, in Iran, living there until he was 19 and departed for the UK. He and his brother always had trouble sleeping and UNDER THE SHADOW was inspired by examining why that might be. “I was chatting with my mom,” he says, “I was born like right in the middle of the Iran/Iraq War, and, you know, it was an intense era, the 80s in Tehran, I thought like maybe that had an effect on me being so scared of anything, everything, and just tapping into that memory of my childhood fears.”

But instead of focusing on himself, he looked at his mother, and what it was like for her during the war. Shideh (Narges Rashidi) is placed in an impossible position, left alone in a war zone, desperately trying to build a life for her family. Just like Shideh’s husband, Anvari’s father was also a doctor, called to the front line for mandatory service. “Every year for a month,” he explains, “otherwise they couldn’t practice medicine.” Left alone with Anvari and his brother, she was frightened and stressed and anxious, and “she felt like maybe, subconsciously, she passed along those anxieties to us.”

Under the Shadow
For the director, it was the perfect opportunity to tell a story that drew from his own past, from history and the country he left, and bring it to the audience in an exciting way. “I thought what a great way to introduce internationally to that side of Iran,” Anvari tells me, “because, you know, not many people know about the ordinary people living in that country. Not many people know about the Iran/Iraq war and what was happening. So I thought that could be a great hook — it’s a horror film, but it’s also about the setting that you’ve never seen, about the place that you don’t know much about.” And really, that what makes it more frightening, because it’s an unfamiliar setting.”

For Anvari, the spark of the idea was always a mother and child, but for a viewer with a very western background, the power of having a female struggling against all odds in a very male-dominated society (where she is not even allowed to pursue her studies and told she should just stay home with her children) cannot be lost. Add to it the supernatural force takes the shape of an old woman in a burqa – at one point Shideh is actually swallowed by the burqa – a very subtle social and political statement boils under the entire film. “I didn’t necessarily set out in a pretentious way to write a feminist script,” the director says, “it’s just that, when I wrote it, I stepped back and realized men are pretty much in the background, it just happened naturally.”

Avin Manshadi, Narges Rashidi

Rashidi came to the film through the recommendation of Navid Negahban (Homeland). “We talked over the phone and Skype,” Anvari syas, “and then she came over to London where I live and we met up and it was just instantly, ‘That’s it, you’re her, you’re my character.’” Of course, when you think about it, most horror films, even ones with no agenda, have women in the lead role. “It doesn’t really matter what culture it’s in,” the director agrees; “some horror films obviously go for the generic scream-queen type. But, I was genuinely trying not to have such a two-dimensional character who just runs around screaming  every two seconds.”

Putting politics aside, one of the most original touches in the film and the one that comes directly from Anvari’s heritage is the mythology of what gets inside Shideh’s home, a Djinn. “Djin are like demons in the Middle East, or like poltergeists,” he says, “they’re very malevolent spirits. They’re not human, they live in a parallel world, but they like to harm – the bad Djinn is jealous of humans, they want to harm them.” Every Middle Eastern country has their own take on this myth, (our western concept of Genies comes from this as well – good Djinn who grant wishes). According to Anvari, in Iran they say that these spirits travel on the wind, searching for victims to possess. “You know how children love to scare each other,” he says, “my friends used to tell me all these stories, obviously all of them made up, about Djinn and how they live in derelict buildings and wait for someone to enter the building and then they would like possess them or even a friend once told me about a ritual to capture one. But, he said if you mess up, the Djinn will kill you, so I was scared to do that.”

Anvari took a bit of creative license with his Djinn, mostly utilizing their method of travel, the wind, as his touchstone. The arrival of Djinn is through a very unexpected and yet very film-appropriate scene, which I won’t reveal, but it is one of the most terrifying sequences I’ve seen captured in film, and only as the story goes on does the viewer realize the significance.

Avin Manshadi, Narges Rashidi

Another thing I love about UNDER THE SHADOW is that it does not rely on flashy edits or CGI to get to you, the filmmaking is very classic, very elegant. It’s restrained, but in putting the characters first, and allowing the audience to live through them, what happens on screen has much stronger emotional resonance, rather than just a jump scare. After seeing the film, I was not surprised to learn that one of Anvari’s biggest influences is Steven Spielberg. “Even though he doesn’t do horror,” he tells me of Spielberg, “he’s a master of creating these very intense and powerful and effective scenes. Like, for instance, the whole abduction scene in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND. It’s amazing. I kept watching that, actually, right before going off to shoot the film.” The writer/director also cites JAWS and DUEL as films that helped him prepare for his own battle with the unknown.

The horror film has always been the fastest way to break into the industry. However, it seems recently we are getting exciting tales of terror from outside the normal channels, like last year’s A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT. Possibly the rest of the world has figured that as well, like ‘wow, I’m going to make this film in Farsi- I better kill some people.’ Anvari says he wanted to tell a story about the time and place where he grew up, which was a very intense era, and realized that setting was perfect for a horror story/psychological thriller, but that the desire to be scared seems to be universal.

 

“People tend to be masochistic,” he says, “they love to go to cinema and get scared, I guess that’s why it’s a very popular genre yeah, it’s like self torture.” As we talk specifically about Ana Lily Amirpour, director of A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT, he suggests “because of the mass immigration since the revolution and the war in the ’70s and ’80s, a lot of Iranians moved across the world.” The children of that exodus are now telling their own stories, whether they are in the UK or the US (where Amirpour resides. He says “you’re finding all these Iranian voices popping up here and there around the world, which is exciting.”

UNDER THE SHADOW world premiered at Sundance and Vertical Entertainment and XYZ Films have partnered to distribute the film theatrically. The release date has not been announced. Netflix bought the streaming rights before the film even made its debut.  Check out a clip from the film below.

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