One of the objectives of the VIFF is to show films each year that take us to another dimension or the supernatural. That’s shown in their Altered States film category/ The first Altered States film I saw was Under The Shadow which showcases a supernatural occurrence during a moment in world history.
This takes place in Tehran during the later 1980’s during the Iran/Iraq war. The war has been going on since 1980 with lots of lives lost, everyone in Iran threatened, and no end in sight. Shideh, just recently expelled from her law school for participating in a protest, has returned to her apartment as a housewife. Only she learns her husband has been drafted in the War. She’s left to tend to her daughter Dorsa alone. Her workout tape to Jane Fonda– forbidden under her country’s religious law along with the VCR hidden in a locked box– becomes her one escape from the stresses in her life.
One night, an Iraqi missile hits the apartment but doesn’t explode. There’s only one fatality but he dies of a heart attack. Mysteriously Dorsa won’t stop crying for her doll until she has it despite the wreckage to the apartment building.
Shideh decides to stay with Dorsa despite other tenant leaving the building for a safer place to live one by one. Dorsa mentions of a mysterious man, or djinn, and that’s what keeps her there. It’s not easy for Shideh to deal with this as she’s constantly being left behind by the tenants, worrying about her husband constantly, looking after Dorsa all alone and dealing with authorities in a country under strict religious law. Things take a turn for the worse as this djinn causes things to move out of place. It even rips up her Jane Fonda tape.
Soon the last of the other tenants– the daughter of the man who died in the missile hit– leaves the apartment with Shideh and Dorsa on their own. Nevertheless Shideh is determined to face the djinn before she leaves and despite the threat of a collapsing roof. Shideh does have her moment to finally confront the djinn and deal with it.
There are a lot of stories about the supernatural in the past. The unique thing about this film is that it features a supernatural character traditional to Arabic literature: the Djinn. The djinn are common in ancient Arabic mythology and are even mentioned in the Qu’ran. The most common form of the djinn in entertainment is the ‘genie in a bottle’ or the ‘genie in a lamp’ that’s common in the most popular Arabic stories. Yes, the genie we all commonly know originates from the djinn myth. However the djinn goes beyond the genie most of us commonly know. The djinn can be either good, evil or neutrally benevolent possessing the same free will of humans. In fact the word djinn comes from the primary meaning ‘to hide.’ It’s the ‘shaytan djinn’ that are the most demonic.
Here the djinn Shideh is dealing with is far from a genie that will grant you three wishes. It’s obvious that this djinn has something to do with Shideh’s personal issues. And she has a lot of them as seen in her life. Her education was cut short because she participated in something that’s a right in most other countries. Her husband has to fight in the war. She’s now on her own looking after her daughter. The only place she appears to find relief in is in her Jane Fonda workout tape which is banned by the government along with her VCR. However this is a djinn that goes beyond just appearing to Shideh. It also carries a sense that it’s present in Dorsa’s doll, too. It’s apparent Shideh has to deal with this djinn to the point she refuses to vacate the apartment with her daughter like all the others until she’s finished.
It’s interesting how this story intertwines with both the supernatural and both a moment in world history. You can notice how there are so many things mixed in with this story that tells of the times in Iran during the war. There’s the forbidden Jane Fonda tape, there’s Shideh punished for being in a demonstration, there’s the police threatening to arrest Shideh for not being in a hijab. You even hear it echoed by the police there: “This is not the same country. We now have our values back. We have men fighting for those values.” Sometimes you wonder if the times of Iran have a lot of influence in the djinn Shideh has to deal with. I often feel that’s what the filmmaker is trying to do here.
I will say one of the top things of the film is that it often succeeds at adding horror elements to the film. The djinn is a mysterious spirit but it does a good job at scaring Shideh in her dreams. It also does a good job in scaring the crowds. I know the film succeeded in scaring me a few times.
It may seem odd for the United Kingdom to submit a film in the Best Foreign Language Film category for this year’s Oscars but it can be done since Iranian-born director Babak Anvari lives in London. Anvari was actually born during the Iran/Iraq war so this is an incident in history that really touches upon him and has a lot to do with why he prefers to live in the UK. This is his first feature-length film and it’s an impressive work as it does a good job in capturing a moment in history and incorporating the supernatural into it. It was also successful in scaring me too at times. Narges Rashidi did a very good job of playing Shideh: a woman who’s both scared and angry. Rashidi herself was born in Iran and is familiar with the Iran/ Iraq war she had to endure with before escaping to Turkey. Young actress Avin Manshadi was also very good as Dorsa.
Under The Shadow is an intriguing story of a mysterious spirit that comes to a woman during wartime. It also makes for a fitting scary movie too.