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The feminist Farsi horror film set in an 80s warzone

Under The Shadow takes place in Tehran during the Iraq-Iran war – a bomb could go off at any moment and there’s a spirit haunting a mother and daughter in their crumbling home

This is not your typical ghost story. For starters, Under the Shadow is a feminist, Farsi-language horror with political undertones to its supernatural scares. Set during the Iraq-Iran war, Babak Anvari’s debut feature conveys the all-consuming terror of Tehran in 1988. A bomb could drop at any moment, and sirens ensure no one sleeps soundly. To make matters worse, a djinn – a type of Middle Eastern spirit – is on the loose, haunting a mother and daughter in their crumbling home. Not that anyone believes them.

Luckily, Shideh, played by Narges Rashidi, is more than just a “final girl”. The wannabe doctor is ejected from medical school due to her past in political activism, and for this reason she’s reluctant to leave the city, even when her husband is shipped off to the front line. Left alone with her young child, Shideh is still reeling from the Cultural Revolution – for instance, VCRs are banned, turning a secret Jane Fonda fitness video into a treasured possession. So when an eerie presence causes havoc at night, Shideh has to wonder: why is this demon targeting two already oppressed women?

Director/writer Babak Anvari also grew up in Tehran during the Iraq-Iran war, and it’s his childhood trauma that inspired Under the Shadow, a welcome reminder that genre movies can be smart, political and still downright frightening. Ahead of the film’s release, we spoke to Anvari and Rashidi about the must-see horror of the moment.

You both grew up in Iran, right? To what extent are your experiences reflected in the film?

Babak Anvari: The spark of the idea came from childhood memories. I was born right in the middle of the Iran-Iraq war. By the time it ended, I was more or less the same age as the child in the film. It all came from conversations I had with my parents, family friends, relatives.

Narges Rashidi: And with me. I was there at the same time during the Iran-Iraq war. I left when it was still going on.

You wrote the script from the mother’s perspective, not through the child’s eyes. Were you thinking back to what your mother felt?

Babak Anvari: Yeah, the spark came from conversations with my mother. Still to this day, my brother and I have trouble sleeping. I have nightmares. I asked my mother about this, and she started blaming herself, because my father is a doctor, and during the 80s, he had to go serve every year for a month – like the father in the film. My mother said, “During those months that your dad was away, I was trying to be a protective mother. I had a lot of fears and anxieties. I was scared. So maybe subconsciously I passed on those fears to you.”

I was like, “This is a great idea for a film.”

Were VCRs banned for you too?

Babak Anvari: For sure. In the 80s, VCRs were illegal. That relaxed in the 90s, because there were satellite dishes which got banned – and they still are.

“We chose to shoot outside Iran so that we could freely tell the story. For instance, in Iran, a woman in front of the camera always has to cover her hair” – Babak Anvari

Narges, does this film feel personal to you as well?

Narges Rashidi: Very personal, because I lived there during that time. My mum was very inspiring for me, because I have memories of her. I saw pictures of that time. Everybody looked so tired. Everybody has this exhaustion in their face. That’s something that war brings. If you go to an exhibit or see pictures – right now in Syria, for example – everybody looks drained. I left Iran when I was 4 or 5, and grew up in Germany. I was always busy becoming German and learning the language and going to school there. So I never really had time to go back to where I came from. With this movie and doing the research, I got back to my own roots.

Is the film banned in Iran?

Babak Anvari: There’s no word out there like it’s “banned”. But because of certain restrictions and censorships in Iran… again, I need to say: Iran has fantastic filmmakers, but they know how to get around these restrictions. But I wanted to tell my story the way I wanted, without worrying about restrictions and censorship.

That’s why, from day one, we chose to shoot outside Iran so that we could freely tell the story. For instance, in Iran, a woman in front of the camera always has to cover her hair. My story is set in an apartment in a private space. It just couldn’t work. You can’t have Shideh wearing chador while going to bed. Even the most religious person wouldn’t wear a headscarf to go to bed. It’d have been impossible to film in Iran.

Babak, why did you choose to make this a horror film?

Babak Anvari: The psychological thriller genre made sense to me because of the setting. 80s Iran was a very intense, dark era – there was a war going on, and it was right after the revolution and the country was going through a lot of changes.

A lot of critically-acclaimed foreign-language horror films like REC and Let the Right One In get remade by Hollywood. Will Chloe Grace Moretz play Shideh in an English-language remake?

Babak Anvari: I hope not. Well, there are talks about an English-language remake, but to be fair, I’m not against it. Ultimately, we made our film. It is what it is. In some ways, whenever there’s an English-language remake, it brings a lot of attention to the original as well. Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t necessarily follow films that are subtitled – which I think is very narrow-minded.

I think if there is an English version, it’s not going to be a remake. It’ll be a retelling of the story, because it needs to be set in a different era or location. I don’t see it being set in Iran with people walking around speaking Farsi. It’ll be like The Ring and Let Me In – it always goes back to the original.

What were the challenges of shooting in Jordan and recreating the setting of Tehran there?

Babak Anvari: It was an amazing location in the sense that it reminded me of Tehran, and even made me feel nostalgic. The crew were all very supportive that a bunch of people were coming from outside the country to make this low-budget film. They were really behind us, fighting in the trenches. They were experienced because Hollywood keeps going there for Transformers, Zero Dark Thirty, and all the desert scenes of The Martian. It always gets used to recreate the Middle East or Mars.

This film has been grouped with It Follows and The Witch as “Intelligent Horror”. How do you feel about that term? Is it like how the mumblecore filmmakers hated being called mumblecore?

Babak Anvari: It’s incredibly pretentious to say one film is intelligent and another one isn’t. I don’t get tangled with terminologies. Ultimately, we all want to tell interesting stories in a setting that international audiences aren’t used to. Sure, it does have horror elements, but I think people should watch it as a good story.

“It’s incredibly pretentious to say one film is intelligent and another one isn’t. I don’t get tangled with terminologies” – Babak Anvari

It was announced a few days ago that you’re the UK’s foreign-language Oscar submission.  What does it mean for you to be going up against Toni Erdmann?

Narges Rashidi: That’s a great movie. What can I say? It’s an honour. I never expected any of it.

Babak Anvari: Like she said, to be chosen for UK representation in the foreign-language category, it’s just awesome.

But it’s especially relevant that it’s happened in the year of Brexit, with Under the Shadow being an international coproduction. It shows what Brexit could potentially damage in the future…

Babak Anvari: Was I in support of Brexit? Absolutely not. Going forwards, it just feels the world needs to come together rather than separating. Film is so international. You need to have co-productions. In our film, the cast came from Germany, the US, Italy, France – and we brought them all to Jordan, even though it’s a British film. Exciting stuff only happens if you collaborate with the rest of the world.