Under the Shadow of Missile Fire: An Interview with Babak Anvari
By Ali Moosavi.
A few years ago an impressive short film debuted called Two and Two (2011). Fast forward to 2016 and that young filmmaker, Babak Anvari, has made his first feature, Under the Shadow. This psychological supernatural thriller, not only a hit with the critics, also impressed the British Academy of Film and Television (BAFTA) so much that they took the highly unusual step for an Iranian language film: it represented the UK in the Foreign Language category of Oscars, though it did not make the final short list.
Under the Shadow is set in Tehran in the eighties, at the height of Iran’s war with Iraq, at a time when Tehran was bombarded with Iraqi missiles. Shideh (Nargess Rashidi), a woman under unbearable pressure and stress, has been kicked out of medical school because of her political activities. Her husband, who is a doctor, is sent away from the family to a rural post as part of his military service, when area by his house is hit by missiles and their little daughter Dorsa believes that Djins (supernatural creatures in Middle Eastern folklore) have invaded their home. These pressures push Shideh over the edge and she starts hallucinating (?) that Djins have entered her household.
I had a chance to talk to Babak Anvari about Under the Shadow and other topics.
In the intervening years between your short film and Under the Shadow, were you mainly working on the script or looking for producers and backers?
In 2012 when Two and Two was nominated for a BAFTA, I registered with an agent in the UK and started working on the Under the Shadow treatment right away. But in those days I had a day time job doing editing and a bit of directing for MTV in London. So I could only work on the script in my free time. Eventually, after two years I had a script which I could send to potential producers. I worked a further year with the producers on the script and it took another year to raise the budget and start filming.
How did the idea for the film originate?
My childhood memories, talking to my parents and close family and memories of being under missile attack.
So, you were living in Iran then?
Yes, I only left Iran in 2002, when I was 19. So, my whole childhood and teenage years were spent in Iran. I was born during the war and when the war ended, I was around 6 years old, which is the age of the little girl in the film. All these memories and things which had frightened me provided the idea for the film. My father is a doctor and, like the husband in the film, had to serve a month in the provinces every year. When I was talking to my mother about those times, I started to think that there’s a story there.
I believe we could term this genre “psychological thriller”, which would include film by Polanski such as Repulsion (1965), Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Tenant (1976).
Great! One of the most important things for me was to leave the viewer in doubt as to whether these events are really occurring or are the product of the mother and daughter’s imagination, brought about by their isolation. I think this is one of the attractive elements of psychological thrillers. Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant had a profound effect on me. I always say that anyone can interpret my film in any way they like. If someone wants to term it psychological thriller and think that these are all hallucinations, then that’s great and if another person believes that Djins have really taken over the house, then that’s fine too.
I think this film can also be termed feminist. Even the title of the film can refer to women being under the shadow of men, Throughout the film one feels that Shideh is under the spotlight by the male characters, from her husband to the religious police to even the watchman in their building. They put her under pressure and induce stress in her. What are your own thoughts about this?
This a beautiful interpretation. Many people have asked me why I named the film Under the Shadow? I chose this rather vague title because under the shadow can mean many things, such as different forms of pressure. As a filmmaker, I don’t like to dictate a certain interpretation to the viewers, because I think it will lessen the film’s attraction. But I really like your interpretation.
One of the memorable scenes in the film was the sight of a giant unexploded missile which had landed in the house. It was such an unusual and terrifying spectacle.
It is a very strange thing. I remember in those days they used to show such missiles landing in houses on TV news. It terrified me as a child that you are sitting at home and suddenly such a strange and horrible object lands there. This had happened to a few of our friends and relations. My mother had a friend who was quite old and when a missile hit her house, she had a heart attack and died. The idea of the old neighbour having a heart attack in the film originates from that.
How much research did you do? Did it include reading about supernatural creatures such as Djins?
You know such things are superstitions and have no scientific basis. They travel by word of mouth and everyone has certain beliefs. One of my main sources of research was the book Inhabitant of Air (Ahle hava) by Gholamhosein Saedi, which mentions Djins travelling by wind. I also visited sites on the net dealing with superstitions, finding things like Djins are frightened of the hair of a black and white cat! I collected such articles and a lot came from my own imagination. But the biggest influence was the stories that I heard during my childhood. For example, my friends always used to talk about Djins and alike. One of the stories that I remember them telling me was about walking on a dark night in a secluded alley and coming across and old woman wearing a hijab, who was asking for help. We would go near her, remove her hijab and find a Djin behind it! This story always used to terrify me!
Like the stories that the little boy in the film tells Dorsa.
How did you find the locations representing Tehran in the eighties?
I think Amman in Jordan provides great locations for creating Tehran in the eighties. You know, nowadays in Tehran they knock down old houses to build tower blocks. But in Amman there are still many low-rise buildings. However, one thing is different and that is the presence of palm trees there. Throughout the shooting, I was careful not to include any palm trees. I did my best to re-create Tehran of the eighties. Amman’s houses and streets reminded me of Tehran and gave me a nostalgic feeling. For interior decoration, I went through family albums and asked all my relatives to send me photos. I was also lucky that my production designer was Jordanian and readily understood what I wanted. He made very creative use of the photos.
How did you find your cast among the Iranian diaspora?
We enquired here and there if anybody knew any Farsi speaking actors. Narges Rashidi was introduced to us by someone. She has grown up in Germany and all her work has been in the German TV and theatre. This is the first film in which she speaks Farsi.
The Iranian origin filmmakers living in the west can be put into two general groups, those such as yourself and Ramin Behrani making independent films and others who are making commercial films in Hollywood. Have you had any offers to make mainstream commercial films?
I’ve had offers but whether the films are independent or big budget, I want to tell stories that excite me and provoke the viewers. I’ve had offers to make “popcorn” movies but I am developing my own ideas and am busy writing my next script. To be honest, I watch all types of films, from independent European films to American blockbusters. To give an example, both Michael Haneke and Christopher Nolan are among my favourite filmmakers.
How did Under the Shadow came to represent UK in the Foreign Language category of Oscars?
We are both proud and excited about this. Every year the film distributors present films to BAFTA for consideration in the foreign language category. In the history of Academy Awards, UK has only submitted around a dozen films in this category. Normally such films are in one of the native languages of the UK, such as Welsh. As our film was produced in the UK, our distributor submitted it and it got selected.
Of course, one of Iran’s recent entries in this category, Farhadi’s The Past (Gozashteh) was in French and filmed in France.
Also, Mustang, which represented France, was in Turkish.
Good luck and we hope that you make your next film as soon as possible
I’ll do my best!
Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine (Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of the The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015) and is based in the United Arab Emirates.