Under the Shadow: An Oscar Nomination to Look Out For


Sruti Mamidanna

“Who are the monsters in this film?” was the question posed by Q&A moderator and UCSB Film and Media Studies Professor Anna Brusutti at Thursday’s Pollock Theater screening of Farsi horror film, Under the Shadow.

Producer Lucan Toh and distributor Nate Bolotin had much to share about their experiences creating the film, providing much needed comedic relief and camaraderie after 84 minutes of tension cut by shrapnel screams. In his directorial debut, writer/director Babak Anvari throws the spectator into the war-torn Iran of the 1980s, where monsters are not always the stuff of myths.

Following the film’s opening credits of archival war footage, we get a sense of the gravity of the world we are about to enter. The film builds atmosphere by foregoing stereotypical horror soundtrack fair, instead using a sinister, luring pied-piper sound design that will forever make such innocuous noises as the pop of a toaster sound traumatizing. But the horror in this genre piece is not in its ability to blow eardrums with shrieks and reassuring giggles. Instead, as Wigwam Films co-founder Toh described, the film uses horror as a genre-wrapper to tell a compelling story about Iran’s social, political and cultural issues.

Set against the backdrop of the Iran-Iraq war, we meet the strong-minded Shideh (Narges Rashidi), who despite her buoyant short hair and energetic Jane Fonda exercise regime in front of the family’s illegal VCR, harbors immense dissatisfaction, resentment and sadness behind tired, deep-set eyes. Deciding to remain in bomb-ravaged Tehran against the wishes of her doctor husband with her young daughter, Dorsa (Avin Manshadi), the film’s first half outlines a slew of marital, parental, political and cultural tensions.

As rumors of Iraqi missiles targeting Iranian cities mounts, so do the children’s fearful whispers about the coming of the Djinn, supernatural spirits of Arabic mythology who act upon humans malevolently. By taking one’s personal belongings, the Djinn place their mark on the individual which cannot be erased unless the item is retrieved.

When a missile crashes through the complex, resulting in the disappearance of Dorsa’s treasured doll, Kimia, the film’s second half unleashes the supernatural entities festering in the narrative’s exposition. Bodies climb through cracks, evil lurks under the blanket and the house breathes as a manifestation of the Djinn. By battling her self-doubting demons, Shideh must retrieve Kimia to protect her child against an evil that is deliberately pulling them apart.

In a scene after her second Djinn encounter, we see Shideh’s reflection in a blank TV mechanically replicating Jane Fonda’s exercise moves in the middle of the night. An awakened Dorsa appears in the background watching her mother. This lingering shot powerfully conveys the struggle to maintain normalcy in chaos, eerily racking between Shideh and Dorsa’s vulnerability, and igniting our own suspicions about each character’s psychological states under the presence of the Djinn.

Seamless weaving between the war and supernatural occurrences drives the story’s historical and psychological elements respectively. Shot in 21 days and premiered at Sundance Film Festival with glowing reception, this Farsi film serves as a strong genre voice from the Middle East; eloquently proving why it is the UK’s Foreign Language Oscar entry for 2016.

Enjoying his warm and nostalgic return to Pollock Theater, UCSB alum Bolotin described how the choice to shoot a subtitled film was deemed financially insane due its difficulty in bringing audiences to theaters. However, Bolotin believes it adds to the story’s authenticity and “uniqueness factor.” Toh chimed in, saying that, “watching the film in English would not have been the same.” Regardless of the film’s numerous interpretive permutations as a horror or feminist political drama, “the content is the heart of film,” declared both Toh and Bolotin.

While the film is reflective of Anvari’s own experiences during the war, the story serves as a tribute to the collective experiences of the people who weathered this tumultuous period in Iran’s history. Under the Shadow is not just about supernatural monsters, but the monsters of war and the monsters created within, for “where there is fear and anxiety, the ‘winds’ (Djinn) blow.” But underneath the political and cultural layer, it’s also a story that creatively uses the tropes of horror to motivate our understanding about relationships, confronting our insecurities and, at the front lines, grappling with the uncertainty around us.