Under the Shadow‘s arrival marks the entry of one of the year’s most original horror movies. Brought to you by Iranian director, Babak Anvari, the film takes on the familiar haunted-apartment trope but is set against the backdrop of the Iran-Iraq war of the ’80s. A progressive-minded woman, expertly played by Narges Rashidi, cares for her daughter solo after her husband is called to serve on the frontlines. Still mourning the death of her mother, the main character is dead set on waiting out her husband’s return in the comforts of her own home, rather than fleeing to her shit-talking in-laws. Of course, her stay is complicated by an evil spirit, the djinn, who makes the stay an oppressive exercise in paranoia and sleepless nights.
As her apartment building is hit with a missile which remains mysteriously unexploded, her abode bears the cracks of a deteriorating building while also mirroring the fractures of her own mental state. A breakout hit at Sundance Film Festival, Under the Shadow makes its Los Angeles premiere at Sundance NEXT FEST. Ahead of the screening, we speak to Babak Anvari about the need to stick to your guns and how he achieved the terse, muted atmosphere of the film in a shoot of just 21 days.
CINEMA THREAD: Under the Shadow seems to be a big breakthrough in sharing a piece of Iranian / Middle Eastern history. Did you feel a responsibility or obligation to tell the story a certain way?
BABAK ANVARI: 100%. Authenticity was very important to me. I really wanted to make sure the story was very believable and set in a world that I can stay true to by recreating the 80s in the best way possible. With Iranians watching, I didn’t want people to say ‘This is fake—this isn’t the way things were back in the day.’
CT: Since you and your family lived through the war – was there any emotional difficulty for you as you made the film?
BA: All Iranians went through a tough time in that war. We were in Tehran, in a part very affected by the war. There were a lot of changes because of the cultural revolution. It was an emotional period for all Iranians—it affected every single one of us in one way or another. What you see in the film, a lot of it comes from a personal place. I experienced it, my parents experienced it—also a lot of the story—are things my relatives experienced. I gathered all of that and obviously dramatized and fictionalized it.
CT: You mentioned in another interview that as children, a lot was shielded from you and thus your imagination kicked in. How much of your upbringing in Iran influenced your decision to become a filmmaker?
BA: To be fair, when I was growing up I was obsessed with film, cartoons, and comics—mainly European comics like Tin Tin. My parents were always supportive, especially my mom, who is a big fan of literature. It was a huge part of my life. I come from a family that likes film—we are constantly talking about cinema, and theater did have a major influence. My uncle—before the revolution—used to make TV commercials, and my mother’s uncle owned a cinema and a theater and was also one of the first TV directors in Iran. My older brother is also a filmmaker and studied film.
CT: Although it isn’t available in Iran, what has response been from Iranian and Middle Eastern communities?
BA: At festivals, I’ve met critics and people from the Iranian community, and usually, up to this point, they’ve been very, very nice and kind about it, and they’ve all told me how much it moved them and reminded them of that era. It’s been well-received so far.
CT: What are some of the technical achievements of the film? Can you talk more about the lighting and the “tenting” of the location?
BA: That was a great idea from my DP, Kit Fraser. We didn’t have a big budget and had to shoot in 21 days. He came up with a plan to turn the location into a mini studio. We put tents around the building and put lights into the tent so we were able to switch into day or night time whenever we wanted.
CT: Was working in that environment claustrophobic at all, or disorienting?
BA: Yes, and shooting night scenes during daytime especially. We would walk out and go ‘oh, this was very confusing.’ I guess it’s like shooting in a movie studio but because it was a short time period, it added to the disorientation. But in some ways it’s quite nice, it felt like a family [shooting this way].
CT: What advice would you give to others who want to make a film entirely in a non-English language, such as Farsi?
BA: To be honest, my advice is just that as long as you believe in your story and your vision, and you’re very passionate, you will find support. Stick to your guns, no matter what. At the start of the process, even my friends were telling me, ‘this is too ambitious, who’s gonna support you for such a crazy project?’—a low-budget film, not in English. I just kept pushing and I was lucky enough to find producers who were very supportive. Be tenacious if you really, really want to be successful.
Babak Anvari’s film ‘Under the Shadow’ makes its LA debut Saturday at Sundance NEXT FEST, happening August 12-14. The screening will be accompanied by a conversation with Babak and John Landis, director of An American Werewolf in London, Animal House, and Michael Jackson’s iconic “Thriller” video. The screening is preceded by “Beautiful People” a music video by Mark Pritchard featuring Thom Yorke.
Tickets can be purchased here.