At only 33 years old, first time director and screenwriter, Babak Anvari, has had a very successful year, thanks to the critical acclaim that his horror feature, Under the Shadow, received at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. The film is a horror completely in Farsi, as its backdrop is a war-crippled Tehran in 1988, towards the end of the Iraq-Iran War. The story follows Shideh and her daughter, Dorsa, who decide to remain in Tehran as her husband, Iraj, is sent on the front lines (he’s a doctor). Soon after, their apartment building is hit by an air missile that mysteriously doesn’t detonate. As more and more people flee the war-ridden city, a superstitious old neighbor tells Shideh that the missile has released a djinn, a malevolent Middle Eastern spirit that takes people’s belongings in order to possess them. So when Dorsa begins to act erratically and claims to have lost her cherished doll, Shideh’s own state of mind starts to falter, as she sees and experiences more sinister and supernatural events. But before it introduces supernatural elements, Under the Shadow establishes itself as a valuable social critique with a strong feminist message. And this solid foundation makes the paranormal aspects all the more powerful. Anvari does a great job at making Shideh a fully three- dimensional female character that the audience gets to know intimately in the first act of the film. So when the horror elements come around, we actually care about what happens to her and Dorsa.
We learn that Shideh was a young medical student who was very politically active in her country and due to this political activism, she is denied re-entry to the university to finish her studies. This backstory adds to Shideh’s character, as we see her struggling with motherhood and domesticity, whilst living under the military rules of Iran’s post-Revolutionary government.
Under the Shadow is a clever and compelling film that brings together feminism, mythology and history with a home invasion thriller/ horror frame, bursting with socio-political context. Anvari’s between-the-lines social commentary works, thanks to his attention to realism within the film: the director is patient in his storytelling and the camera is often calm and allows for tension and paranoia to creep within the story’s framework, without forgetting entertaining and smart scares that are subversively incisive. The film’s malevolent force, the djinn, is an ominous one, as we come to learn that Under the Shadow isn’t really about the monster, but rather what the monster represents. In this case, it’s female oppression and the difficulties of mother-daughter relationships. The cracks on their roof are both, letting in malevolent spirits, as well as showcasing the fragility of Shideh’s psychosis and strained bond with Dorsa under the constant fear and paranoia of a potential nuclear attack.
In Anvari’s words, “the film starts off as being a bit more objective but then bit by bit we enter Shideh’s mind, and that’s when the camera movements start getting a bit freaky and expressionistic.” This realism sensed throughout the entire movie works and is believable, mostly due to the fact that Anvari himself went through a similar experience growing up. Anvari’s childhood was spent in Tehran during the Cultural Revolution and the protracted Iran-Iraq War, when he and his brother were left alone with their mother for part of each year while their father was away, completing compulsory military service. As he recalls, “during those times, my mum was doing her best to be a protective mother, but she was very anxious and scared. Because my brother and I were quite timid as children and we had trouble sleeping, my mother thought that without realizing it, she’d passed along her fears to us.” Anvari was about the same age as Dorsa when the war was happening, so he was able to relate to it on a more intimate level.
Anvari began his filmmaking career in Iran where he completed his first animated short at sixteen years old, which received some attention at a short-film festival in Tehran. From there, Anvari moved to London in 2002, when he was only nineteen, to study film and television production at the University of Westminster. He has been based there ever since. Before Under the Shadow, Anvari made four shorts and the most recent of them, Two and Two in 2012, garnered him a BAFTA nomination. The short film is “an Orwellian tale of a school where the syllabus is changed to reflect that two and two equals five.” The short was shown across the world, as part of BAFTA’s international program, and gained great popularity with international and especially Iranian audiences on YouTube. Anvari was also selected as one of the eight “rising stars in the world of film and media” at the Cristal Festival Europe’s Young Directors Forum. The young director has also worked for MTV UK and Ireland as one of the directors of the MTV Live Sessions, which included Florence & The Machine, Lady Gaga, Pixie Lott and Tinie Tempah.
Under the Shadow marks the beginning of a very promising career for Anvari, as a full feature director. His influences include horror movies from the 60s and 70s, particularly Roman Polanski’s Apartment Trilogy, which is comprised of the iconic Rosemary’s Baby, Repulsion and The Tenant. The mood of Under the Shadow is similarly claustrophobic as everything is set in an apartment. It was Anvari’s first instinct to tell the story through a horror/thriller lens, as the Iran-Iraq war was such a dark and twisted time in history. The director has cleverly made a film for both, Iranian and international audiences, by using an originally crafted story with genre tropes, as a hook to introduce this moment in history to a larger global audience.
The horror genre has become more popular in recent times, in the Middle East. Films from that region have tended to shy away from bloodshed and violence due to the recent and ongoing turmoil. Anvari stands by the fact that he doesn’t see Under the Shadow as a political film per se, but “an Iranian filmmaker making a film about Iran is always going to be taken politically.” Combining the collective social trauma of war and women’s cultural struggles with supernatural and horror-like elements is proving to be a winning combination to create a new thought provoking cinema. Anvari’s positive outlook for the future also goes to young filmmakers everywhere: “as corny as it sounds, my advice for young, up and coming filmmakers is to be tenacious and do not give up easily. Rejection and failure is part of the industry. Have faith in yourself and your vision and keep on pushing. Take one step at a time in order to achieve your goals.” Under the Shadow will debut on Netflix and in theaters on October 7th.