Kirsty Jones, Marketing Manager at Hackney Picturehouse, previews this week’s Discover Tuesdays presentation of Iranian horror Under the Shadow.
War veteran David Hackworth once said “War is the ultimate reality-based horror show”, and it’s the abhorrence of the Iran-Iraq war that serves as the backdrop for Babak Anvari’s feature film debut. When an apartment building is hit by a missile, Shideh’s superstitious neighbour suggests that the missile was cursed and might be carrying malevolent Middle-Eastern spirits. Shideh is initially sceptical but something supernatural seems to be at play within the building and soon she has no choice but to confront these forces if she is to save her daughter and herself.
Anvari grew up in Iran and his childhood was defined by this very war and the emergent authoritarianism of the Cultural Revolution. The family situation we see on screen is not unlike his own experience of the times when his father would be called away to the frontline, leaving him and his brother in the care of his young mother. Admitting that his childhood was one filled with fear, fear that has persisted into his adult life; Anvari attributes the strength and bravery of his female protagonist to his mother and other Iranian women who looked after their families whilst enduring the threat of being bombed. So the idea that spectres and spirits would take advantage of a war-torn apartment and a family under strain is in part a masochistic exploration for Anvari and yet necessary in that it is an exorcism of his fears, ranging from shadows in the half-light to all-out psychological terror.
Our central character, Shideh, is a former political activist but it’s her role as mother to Dorsa that is the focus for Anvari. As with any parent-child relationship, there are vulnerabilities and sometimes regrets. This particular situation causes tensions between the two, played out perfectly by the leads. Shideh’s stubborn resolve begins to unravel as she realises she’s maybe wrong to be so cynical about the impending danger. Narges Rashidi takes the starring role and brings to it her own first-hand experience of the war, having been born in Iran’s Khorramabad in 1980. She has talked about the difficulty of playing this part and of having to return to the memories she buried since leaving her country in 1987.
Anvari builds suspense with classic horror film devices, occasionally playful but ultimately concluding in an all-out horror show-down as Shideh and Dorsa come face to face with the evil that has taken up residence. As familiar as the scares may feel, this feature transcends the genre with touches of feminist and social-realist drama. And I must mention my fondness for the work-out video – a souvenir from my own childhood – which throughout the film brings us back to its place in history. Having received an impressive collection of reviews since its release earlier this year, I’m not surprised that Under The Shadow is popping up on people’s ‘Best of 2016’ lists, mine included.