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Under the Shadow (2016)

Babak Anvari's Under the Shadow explores the horrors of living as a woman within a war-torn Tehran during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war. Ghouls educate on the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the power of having a flawed female protagonist in a tyrannical and oppressive regime.

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Oppression of Women in Iran & the 1979 Iranian Revolution

Kat Kushin

RED: Quotes, someone else's words.

In the film Under the Shadow, the director Babak Anavari created the film from personal experiences. In an interview from Den of Geek titled Babak Anvari interview: Under The Shadow, horror, Statham, written by Sarah Dobbs, Anavari recounts some of his life and what helped inspire the film. Anavari grew up in Iran, and lived there until he was about 18-19 years old. The Iraq-Iran war that the film is centered around happened when he was still a child, similar to the age of Dorsa from the film.

In another article from the Guardian, Terror in Tehran: Under the Shadow and the Politics of Horror, written by Tom Seymour. Anavari recounts his further similarities to the child in the film, Dorsa. His experience, like Dorsa’s, included his father working as a doctor on the frontline, leaving him and his brother in the care of their young mother, Farzaneh. He recounts often feeling afraid, and that this was something passed down to him from his mother. Caused by time spent in basements, as sirens warned of incoming bomb threats. “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.” The forced normalcy of distant blasts from Iraqi missiles, and a generational fear of the uncertainty of living in a war-torn country.

In the opening scenes of Under the Shadow we get a clear understanding of what the film is going to be about. It shows archival footage of bombs dropping, people scattering on the streets of Tehran, and moving to some dramatised evocations of Anvari’s earliest memories.

For anyone who doesn’t know the details of the Iraq-Iran war of 1980 and the revolution preluding it I’ll provide some background. I pulled this information from the Britannica, titled Iranian Revolution, written by Janet Afray. Essentially the revolution came after many years of government upheaval created and manipulated by the UK, Russia and the US. Each government group stirred the pot in different directions and caused different leaders to be exiled, and the CIA, and UK intelligence agency joined together at one point to stage a coup. This is to say that it made sense that the revolution of 1979 took place and that there was a long history of protest, and transitioning leadership. The 1979 revolution, which brought together Iranians across many different social groups, has its roots in Iran’s long history. These groups, which included clergy, landowners, intellectuals, and merchants, had previously come together in the Constitutional Revolution of 1905–11.

So the prelude for this is Mohammad Reza Shah, who launched the White Revolution, which was an aggressive push towards modernization, and westernization, that upended the wealth and influence of landowners and clerics, disrupted rural economies, led to rapid urbanization and Westernization, and prompted concerns over democracy and human rights. The result of this effort benefited economically, however these benefits weren’t distributed equally. There was also a push against previous social norms, shifting towards a more western view. Opposition grew against shah’s policies in 1970, as the economy became unstable due to western oil demands. A decade of extraordinary economic growth, heavy government spending, and a boom in oil prices led to high rates of inflation and the stagnation of Iranians’ buying power and standard of living.

The economic situation, coupled with socio political repression by Shah’s regime grew in the 1970s. There were open opposition parties that were against the regime, and protests taking place were often met with censorship, surveillance, harassment, and illegal detention and torture were common. This environment caused many groups to align themselves against Shah and with a more conservatively religious and anti-western front. There’s also the quick and dramatic shift in Iran from a traditional, conservative, and rural society to one that was industrial, modern and urban. This shift spurred revolution, and in 1978, thousands of young madrasah (religious school students) took to streets in protest. This was accompanied by rural Iranian youth, who began protesting the Shah regimes excesses. The Shah at the time had cancer, and was surprised by the seemingly sudden uprising. He considered the protests an international conspiracy against him, which considering previous international intervention, is not a far stretch. The government responded violently to protesters and that only fueled the flame more, uniting the secular left and religious right under the revolutionary rallying cry of Allahu Akbar (“God is Great”). Martial law was eventually declared and troops opened fire on demonstrators in Tehran. Then strikes began to take place, and thousands of protesters erupted in Tehran alone.

A previously exiled leader named Khomeini, coordinated further opposition demanding that Shah’s abdication. While the Shah “vacationed” or arguably fled Iran, Khomeini took his chance. Crowds in excess of one million demonstrated in Tehran, and resulted in Iran’s armed forces declaring neutrality, ousting the Shah regime.

This change in regime resulted in a quick shift back to conservative social values. The Family Protection Act, which previously guaranteed certain rights to married women was voided. Mosque-based revolutionary bands known as Komitehs, patrolled the streets to enforce Islamic codes of dress and behavior, as well as quelled any “revolutionary ideals”. This is why in the film, protesting was seen as a reason for Shideh to not be able to continue medical school. The militias that were formed made every effort to suppress Western cultural influences, under threat of persecution and violence. This anti-Western feeling spread and resulted in hostages being taken at the U.S. embassy by a group of Iranian protesters demanding the extradition of Shah, who was seeking cancer treatment in the US.

Saddam Hussien saw this chaos as an opportunity to strike, and thus began open warfare in 1980. Iraqi armed forces invaded western Iran after they claimed Iran shelled a number of border posts. Fighting continued until 1988, when a cease-fire was agreed upon. The reason the war began was because Iraq wanted to seize control of the oil in Khuzestan. It was also stated that Khuzestan was inhabited by ethnic Arabs, and Iraq wanted to reassert sovereignty over that area. Saddam Hussein was apparently also concerned about the Islamic revolutionary government, and thought they might attempt to incite rebellion among Iraq’s Shi’i majority. By attacking when it did, Iraq took advantage of the apparent disorder and isolation of Iran’s new government—then at loggerheads with the United States over the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehrān by Iranian militants—and of the demoralization and dissolution of Iran’s regular armed forces.


Media from this week's episode:

Under the Shadow (2016) Director: Babak Anvari

Summary by IMDB: As a mother and daughter struggle to cope with the terrors of the post-revolution, war-torn Tehran of the 1980s, a mysterious evil begins to haunt their home.

Oppression of Women in Iran and Under the Shadow

Gabe Castro

RED: Quotes, someone else's words.

Babak Anvari’s premiere film, Under the Shadow is ripe with jump-scares, spooks and bogeymen but the real horror lies in the social setting of 1988 Tehran, in the midst of the Iran-Iraq war. The film follows mother, Shideh and her struggles to adjust to a new, restrictive and sexist world. The beginning of this film is a slow burn, there isn’t much in the way of conventional horror, only the hint of something awry when her daughter, Dorsa, claims there’s someone in her room at night. What we get instead, is a glimpse into the life of an independent woman who now has to reconcile her future with the expectations and limitations of her new government. 1988, the year this film takes place was the last year of the eight-year Iran-Iraq war. Characters take turns pointing out how endless and futile it feels. We are introduced to Shideh as she begs to be allowed to return to medical school. It is her dream to become a doctor but her past association with revolutionary groups, though she claims “everyone was political back then,” and that she put her career plans on hold to be a mother missing her chance (which feels a bit like resentment at points in the story) keep her from that opportunity. When she returns home, she strips off the hijab and begrudgingly takes on the role as mother and wife. She’s bitter and she’s spiteful. And I absolutely get it.

This film is often compared to Jennifer Kent’s Babadook, which we covered in our Mental Illness episode with guest Marina. Similar to Babadook, Under the Shadow is a story of a mother confronting depression, guilt and pain as it manifests into supernatural beings determined to rip her child from her. For Shideh, those supernatural haunts are Djinn’s that have found themselves, having sailed on the wind, into her apartment building by way of a dud missile that crashes into it, takes the form of a spectre-floating burqa.

In an article I found on the AV Club titled, Under The Shadow is a Babadook for War-Torn Iran by A. A. Dowd, they remark on how poignant it is to have a character in a horror movie that actually leaves the haunted house only to be halted by real-forces in their attempt to flee.

“There’s a moment in Under The Shadow where the heroine does something that people in haunted-house movies almost never do: She grabs her child and bolts straight out the front door...Trouble is, this young mother lives in Tehran circa 1988, and in her instinctive dash for safety, she fails to cover her head with a hijab.”

Finally fed-up with the horrors and ghosts that threaten her and her child, Shideh grabs Dorsa and runs through the city. Kat remarked while we were watching it, “Wow, no shoes.” which was our first concern. When we saw the authorities, I felt a blip of hope. Certainly these men would understand and help a woman clearly in distress during a literal war where missiles are falling constantly. Instead, Shideh is arrested and lectured in a dark and dingy jail cell. She is given a hijab and scorned for her indecency. It was a moment for us as American women viewers to realize our ignorance, it hadn’t even occurred to us.

There is something very vulnerable and frustrating about the character Shideh. She is lashing out at her husband, who is a doctor since he didn’t have to put his life on hold for their family and is also a man, and she is lashing out at her daughter who clearly has a stronger relationship with her father. In the beginning, Dorsa calls out to her dad when she awakens from a nightmare. The relationship between mother and daughter is shaky at best. It feels as if Shideh holds Dorsa responsible for her failed dreams. Throughout the film, she is bratty, frustrated and terribly human. Much like Amelia in Babadook, she is human first and a mother second. Our expectation of perfection from them is at the heart of the problem, why shouldn’t Amelia and Shideh be frustrated? Why can’t they be sad by the opportunities lost? Why can’t they mourn? And I think that is the strongest piece of this film, in the imperfection of Shideh, a woman fraying at the edges who bites back.

She is still a mother, though. Her driving force for survival is her daughter. She is constantly running to her and in exasperation, begging her daughter to please just forget the doll and go! In the end, when confronted by Dorsa for being, honestly pretty awful, Shideh admits to it. Dorsa accuses her of stealing the doll and causing all of this. And Shideh admits that she truly doesn’t know if she did or not. She is honest, vulnerable and humbled. She understands that her mind and recollection of events is unreliable. But more importantly, she explains that she loves Dorsa above all else and that she’ll do whatever it takes to protect her. And that is the heart of a real mother, one that can make mistakes (ones our heroines in film are not often afforded) but she loves her child. The Djinn have no power over her because the possession they thought was her most prized was nothing more than something to hold onto, her real prize was Dorsa.

A. A. Dowd in their AV Club article later goes on to say, “The threat isn’t just to the life of a mother, but to the future of her child, who might be swallowed whole by the repressive mores of her culture—the alternative “parent” hoping to raise her.” Shideh has to come to terms with the loss of her own dreams and instead, like her mother did for her, inspire empowered dreams upon Dorsa. In the end, they are not simply running away from the Djinn but rather the expectations and limitations thrust upon them by a regime intent on making them victims.


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