Terror in Tehran:
Under the Shadow and the politics of horror
Tom Seymour, The Guardian Film, 29 September 2016
Babak Anvari’s debut Under the Shadow evokes his fear-ridden childhood in Iran – and is being hailed as a horror classic. Here he talks about his mother’s inspirational courage – and the nightmares that still haunt him.
Ever since he can remember, Babak Anvari’s nightmares have always been the same. “I wake up shouting at someone in the corner of the room,” he says. “I can feel someone there, and I’m so convinced of it. It takes me 30 seconds to realise we’re alone. My girlfriend is usually very patient, but I think it drives her crazy.”
His sibling, Kiarash, five years his senior, is similarly haunted by night-time visitors. “My brother and I have grown up being scared of everything and anything,” says Anvari. “We’ve both grown up with night terrors, being afraid of being left alone, of being in the dark for too long.”
Now 33, Anvari grew up in Iran; his was a childhood defined by the war with Iraq and the emergent authoritarianism of the cultural revolution. When Anvari and his brother were toddlers, their father, a doctor, would leave the tall apartment block in which they lived in Tehran for mandatory stints on the frontline, leaving his sons in the sole care of their young mother, Farzaneh.
What’s on the ceiling? Narges Rashidi and Hamid Djavadan in Under the Shadow. Photograph: Everett/REX/Shutterstock
“My mother came to visit me in London, and I asked her why she had raised such scared boys,” says Anvari. “She confessed she felt almost constantly afraid and stressed during those months when Dad was away, and she’s convinced she subconsciously passed all her fears on to us. She blames herself.”
‘My brother and I have grown up being scared of everything’ … Babak Anvari. Photograph: Buckner/Variety/REX/Shutterstock
That fraught conversation was the spark for Under the Shadow. Acquired by Netflix before its premiere at this year’s Sundance, Anvari’s debut feature is already being talked of as a horror classic. But it is a film that transcends the genre. Yes, it is fluent in standard-issue horror tropes, but it is most notable for the painstaking way Anvari has evoked 1988 Tehran. The film, researched with photos from family albums, shot in Amman, Jordan, with UK money, and spoken in Farsi, is a wholly authentic social-realist drama that morphs, ominously, into a gothic ghost story. It is a film indebted, simultaneously, to Asghar Farhadi and Roman Polanski, Abbas Kiarostami and Jack Clayton.
The opening title credits are accompanied by archive footage of bombs dropping and people scattering on the streets of Tehran, before moving to dramatised evocations of Anvari’s earliest memories.
“The war was largely invisible to us, because Tehran wasn’t the frontline,” Anvari says. “We were children, and we didn’t really know what was happening. But I remember sirens wailing and running with my neighbours into the basement of the apartment block. I remember the arguments and rumours that would circulate down there, hearing these distant blasts of Iraqi missiles.”
His heroine is Shideh, played by Narges Rashidi, a doctor who has been banned for political activism. When her husband is called to the frontline, Shideh is left in the apartment with their daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi). She angrily works out to an illegal Jane Fonda aerobics tape, her resentment building towards her husband and the revolutionary guard that patrol the streets. Then a missile tears through the upper floor of the apartment block, leaving deep, dark cracks in the ceiling of their living room.
Like Chekhov’s gun, the unexploded bomb starts to weigh on the home in multivalent ways. Dorsa becomes sleepless and fevered, sees apparitions in the apartment that seem, to her child’s eyes, potent and real. A superstitious, deeply conservative neighbour warns Shideh of the presence of djinn, the wind-born spirits that haunt places already beset by fear. As the other tenants start to flee the building, Dorsa and Shideh are left to confront a malevolent spirit that may or may not be imagined.
Rashidi was also born in Tehran, leaving for Turkey, and then Germany, at the age of seven. Like Anvari, she also has traumatic early memories of the city of her birth.
“I was no younger than Avin,” Rashidi says. “I remember falling asleep in the middle of the night in my mum’s lap, and waking up to the sound of bombs falling. We’d be taken down to the cellar to hide, and my mum would always play loud music and start dancing. She would make us stand up and dance with her, so she had her tricks to keep us from being afraid."
“When I think of the adults in my life at that time, I remember how exhausted they all looked, even as they tried to give us a happy childhood.”
Now an actor in Los Angeles, Rashidi found herself re-examining the impact of her own past in order to portray Shideh. “I knew what was going on,” she says of the war. “I was old enough to pick things up. But I never looked into those memories after leaving Tehran. I wanted to try and forget such things – war and revolution – so I could get on with my life. I tried to forget, to put it all away. But it was there. I never lost it, I just never dug into it. I had to do that with this movie. I had to go back to that time, and it was difficult.”
Terror above … Avin Manshadi and Narges Rashidi in Under the Shadow.
For all its scare tactics and creeping atmospherics, Under the Shadow is deeply humanist, and seems in awe of the women who were forced to live, and raise children, under the threat of carpet bombs and the intolerance of the post-revolution regime.
In one stunning scene, Shideh flees the apartment in terror when the spirit finally reveals itself, only to be arrested by a patrol of uniformed thugs. Her crime, punishable by lashes, is for venturing into the daylight without her chador – a flowing veil the visiting spirit also seems to wear.
“There’s a misconception about Iranian women,” says Anvari. “People think of them as oppressed, ready to be victimised. But Iranian women always fight back. There are so many restrictions in Iranian society, but they never sit back and just accept them. Shideh was inspired by my mother, and the other women I knew when I was growing up. Her strength is a tribute to them.”
It is rare to find a horror story rooted in the fears our mothers pass on to us, that captures how trauma can, from one generation to the next, visit us in the middle of the night. And how, with strength and resilience, we can spirit it all away.