A woman and her young daughter, alone in their apartment, begin to worry that something is amiss. Personal items start disappearing, there's a feeling of tension in the air, and a shadowy figure seems to lurk just out of sight. On its face, Under the Shadow sounds like a fairly standard haunted house movie, but Iranian-born, London-based filmmaker Babak Anvari has delivered anything but.
Setting his film in Tehran during the late 1980s, a time when the city was being bombed by neighbouring Iraq, Anvari uses horror movie trappings to explore the various social issues that have affected his native country for so long — from the rights of women under a religiously conservative regime, to the traumas of war creeping into everyday civilian life.
After a rapturous premiere at Sundance back in January, Under the Shadow screened at the Sydney and Melbourne International Film Festivals, ahead of a planned theatrical release on October 7 (you can read our review of the film here). It was in Melbourne that Concrete Playground managed to catch up with the talented young writer-director, for a chat on everything from growing up during wartime to the challenges of funding a Farsi-language horror film in the West.
A CLASSIC HORROR STORY IN AN UNFAMILIAR SETTING
When talking about Under the Shadow, the most obvious comparison for critics is A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night – if only because it's the only other Farsi-language horror movie people have heard of. But where that film draws on vampire tales, Westerns and ultra-cool American indie flicks, Anvari's movie feels closer to classic psychological thrillers. Think The Haunting, Rosemary's Baby or even the recent Australian spooker The Babadook.
"I love smart horror films," stresses Anvari. "I'm not one of those genre fanatics who watches every B-movie and grindhouse film. But I do love smart horror. With Under the Shadow, it just made sense to me, because I'm setting it in such a dark period... I just found it was a great setting for horror."
In addition to his various filmic inspirations, he also drew on his own experiences growing up in Tehran. "Obviously it's not autobiographical, but a lot of it comes from a very personal place, tapping in to my memories from childhood," says Anvari. "I was born right in the middle of the Iran-Iraq war. [I took] stories I heard from relatives and family friends, combined them and added the genre beats, and [the film] became what you have now."
CAN'T WE JUST MAKE IT IN ENGLISH?
Of course it's one thing to write a horror movie in Farsi, and something very different to actually get it funded. "I met producers who were like, 'Great script, but is there any way we can shoot it in English?'" recalls Anvari. "I just thought it would look so fake and unbelievable if it was set in period Iran and people were walking around speaking English with a weird accent. Even for an international audience I think it would have been strange."
While the language hurdle was eventually overcome thanks to the support of production company Wigwam Films, shooting the film in Tehran was never really an option. "I don't think there's anything offensive in the film, but [there are] limitations one has when making film in Iran," says Anvari, who ended up shooting in nearby Jordan instead. "Even very minor things like, in Iran, if you're shooting a female character, they have to cover their hair. But a majority of this film is a woman in her own personal space, and even the most religious person wouldn't go to bed wearing a head scarf."
"There are fantastic filmmakers in Iran who are still working there, and they always find a way to go around these limitations and censorships," he adds. "But having worked in England, and having been so spoiled, I just wanted to tell my story the way I wanted."
OPENING A WINDOW
While the comparison to A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night can be a little misleading, one thing that both films definitely have in common is that they've sparked renewed interest in films about the Middle East that depict the region in ways that Western audiences may not be used to. "That was one of the reasons I was so interested in this story," says Anvari. "Not many people know about the Iran-Iraq war. So I just thought it would be great to use genre tropes as a hook to keep people interested, and open a window to that period and that region."
Whatever the draw, Anvari just wants people to go and see the film — and preferably in a cinema. Recounting a story from Sundance where audience members were so frightened that they had to leave the cinema, the filmmaker stresses the importance of the atmosphere you get with a crowd. "It's great to watch such films in a cinema," he says. "The fear is contagious."
Under the Shadow is currently screening at Cinema Nova in Melbourne.