14 November 2016 | Erden Göktepe
Watching a powerful horror film like Under the Shadow is weirdly timely considering the alarming result of the 2016 US Elections. I do not know about you, but I am confronted every single day with nauseating media images of an unrelenting system filled with inconsistent and fallacious political promises. Maybe it’s due to my Middle Eastern background, but the potentially devastating repercussions of the US elections are haunting me like my childhood nightmares. I dream of faceless ghosts coming down from the cracks in the walls just like the ones used by Babak Anvari, the British director of Iranian descent responsible for Under the Shadow. This film is the first to depict the Iran-Iraq War in a horror genre, and it’s Anvari’s first feature-length movie.
Anvari’s story of terror starts in a creaky house in Tehran and is centred on the domestic life of three: a mother, a father and a daughter who sit eating dinner around a kitchen table as people leave the city because of life-threatening conditions. One could take the protagonists out of Tehran and put them in an American disaster or horror movie taking place in New York. Everything seems typical – apart from the fact that they are in the middle of a devastating war in the Middle East that has lasted for 8 years. During the war, “at least half a million people died and upper estimates stretch to 1,5 million”. In Anvari’s film, the experience of survivors are mirrored by their own ghosts of fear and despair. These experiences feed on the distance between them and their fantasies, which in turn reinforces their established life in terror. For example, the clouded relationship between a departed grandmother, mother, and daughter, is poignant throughout the film and affirms the power of the deceased grandmother. The relationship keeps the spectator uptight, anxiously awaiting the arrival of other, more sinister bogeymen.
It is common knowledge that stories of bogeymen are used to frighten children into good behaviour. In cinema, bogeymen can be anything representing fear. In Under the Shadow, however, the bogeyman’s particular characterisation – which includes a garment evocative of a hijab – centers the horror on the female character’s own fears and struggles. There are several scenes illustrative of these struggles. For example, the female protagonist has a troubled past due to her involvement with anti-revolutionary activities, which consequently led to her being expelled from medical school and was a major disappointment for her mother. The protagonist also has intense discussions with her husband on the matter and treats her daughter in a cranky manner due to the fact that she feels she is stuck in a place she doesn’t belong. Later on in the film, when the protagonist decides to leave the city, her daughter’s doll disappears. They search and finally find the doll, but it has been decapitated. The protagonist is furious and begs her daughter to stop playing such games. The daughter responds that she is not the one -that it is them who did it, that they arrived, referring to the bogeymen. These scenes depicting the protagonist’s cranky relationship with her daughter, the fervent discussions with her husband about being expelled from medical school, and the decapitated doll, are added to moments showing the protagonist’s facial expression every time she puts on a headscarf, and emphasize her helpless situation. The story drags the spectator in and out of a domestic life filled with a mix of tenacity, fear, and despair – an ordinary life of regrets caught up within unrecognized threats.
Building on this mix of the domestic and the terrible, a shocking scene shows an old man killed by an unexploded bomb. The scene represents the significant absence of protection for ordinary lives from external threats. These threats, and the protection from them, are usually from a masculine source. Also, the persistent use of indoor spaces where there are only women and children draws the spectator’s attention to much more important and current problems regarding the negligent and discriminatory treatment of women. Such images make me think about the promises of a more righteous life offered during the Islamic seizure of power in 1979, the constant discrimination against women, and the justification of world powers’ arms trade, even when these powers publicly advertise foreign policies of “freedom” and “democracy” in the Middle East. 
Questions swarm in. How can someone ignore those who need the most protection and still be righteous? How can a state discriminate between its citizens and still be legitimate? How can a child grow up under the shadow of fear and insecurity, and ever escape from dreadful fantasies of bogeymen? How will our world deal with the new president-elect of the US, who heedlessly avows the new administration’s policies on separation and discrimination?
Anvari, who grew up during the war times in Tehran, is clearly responding to such questions with his film. He describes his nightmares to Tom Seymour during an interview: “I wake up shouting at someone in the corner of the room,” he says. “I can feel someone there, and I’m so convinced of it. It takes me 30 seconds to realise we’re alone. My girlfriend is usually very patient, but I think it drives her crazy.” 
Anvari shrewdly pulls us into the terror of bogeymen as a dramatic representation of the terrifying repercussions of the hard times experienced by ordinary people in Iran during the Iran-Iraq War. To be blunt, Anvari’s film is not just about victimisation, nor is it simply centred on Islam, the West, or revenge. It is a powerful must-see film encapsulating many aspects of political horror. As one of the female characters in the film says: “They travel on the wind, moving from place to place until they find someone to possess.” Be aware of bogeymen!
I am currently a first-year Ph.D. researcher in Film Studies. My Ph.D. research addresses Turkish film directors’ patterns of representation of the relationship between the ordinary people and the authoritarian military regime during the military coup years in Turkey. I am passionate about languages, Turkish cuisine and jazz music.
Edited by Ian Anderson, Eszter Simor, Amadeus Chen, and Chantal Bertalanffy.