Sunday 3 September 2017

On a Thousand Walls #8: Under the Shadow (2016)

I remember a friend at university telling me how much she loved Iranian films, that Iranian films were all beautiful, and I suppose I've internalised that a bit, so that if someone mentions an Iranian film, I immediately think as a sort of reflex action, oh, that's a good movie, right?

In fact, it's generally part of the thing with foreign language films, in that foreign language movies are often better, yes, but that's generally because we don't see the crappy ones so much, because distributors tend not to bother to distribute them in English language markets. There are plenty of crappy films made in languages that aren't English, but we don't see quite so many of them.

Jane Fonda's Workout.
Smaller markets mean smaller numbers of films subtitled and marketed over here, so the interest that Westerners — stupid, parochial Westerners like me — have in a culture or language is inversely proportional to the average quality of the films we import from those cultures. So for example, the very worst foreign language films I've seen have all been Japanese (like Death Note. Oh my Holy God, what a stinker. I can't imagine how awful the Netflix remake must be) and that's not because Japanese cinema is necessarily bad, it's because lots of Japanese films get imported and subtitled, so the rubbish-to-gold ratio is more weighted towards the rubbish end. On the other hand, when do we care about Iran (except when we're messing with their elections, obviously)? If you're going to see a film in Farsi, the odds against it even reaching you are so small to begin with that for it to arrive here in the West it has to be pretty good, or at the very least, have some western money behind it. If you want to see a bad Iranian film, you're going to have to know Farsi fluently.

All of that is conjecture, since, to my shame, I've never actually watched a film made in Farsi before.

Under the Shadow, it turns out, isn't even an Iranian film, it's British, although made by an Iranian director, Babak Anvari. It is very, very good, though.

We're in Tehran in the mid to late 1980s, during the Iran-Iraq war. Shideh (Narges Rashidi) is told that she will never be permitted to return to medical school, because in her younger days, she got involved in politics. She resigns herself to being a housewife and stay at home mum, throwing away her textbooks, apart from one, inscribed by her recently deceased mother, proud of her daughter's future career, unaware of its end. Shideh's husband, Iraj (Bobby Naderi), who of course has been permitted to finish medical school, suggests it's for the best. There's been tension in their marriage for a while, we gather; whatever Iraj might be saying to Shideh, however he couches it, what she hears is, "You are a bad mother."
Heading to the frontline.
Is she? Her little girl, Dorsa (Avin Manshadi, giving a stunning performance) is maybe five or six, and this kid lives in a war zone. Like any kid, she feels the tension between her parents. She knows there's something wrong. And she acts out a little, is withdrawn, lonely, clings to a ragdoll called Kimia, that her dad gave her so she wouldn't be afraid. Dorsa tantrums and digs her heels in like any little kid who's under stress.

Iraj gets drafted. He goes away. Shideh carries on as best she can; she vents stress with a bootleg tape of Jane Fonda's Workout (but needs to hide the video and the tapes she has if anyone comes in, because she'd get arrested if it was found) and manages with quiet frustration with the way that her options as a woman are closing in, with having to put a hijab on to go out (at one point, later on in the film, she runs in terror from her home into the street, gets herself arrested straight away for being outside without a hijab; the official who lets her off with a caution acts like he's doing her a massive favour).

Is she a bad mother? Not particularly. She's an impatient, stressed mother who's cooped up alone with a child in a flat with all the windows taped up because of the bombs flying and nothing to do except work off the sweat with Jane. She could go and stay with Iraj's mum where it's safe, but she treats that with a sort of dread, as if at least, living here alone, she's got some sort of freedom.
I'm afraid.
A refugee boy, taken in by the landlord's family, plays with Dorsa, but he scares her. He tells her about the djinns, the evil spirits you can't escape, who steal from you, who plague you. Shideh goes and asks Mrs Ebrahimi to stop him telling Dorsa the stories, but Mrs Ebrahimi says he's mute, he hasn't spoken a word since he saw his parents die. What was it about, she asks? Djinns or something. But Mrs Ebrahimi believes in djinns. The haunting has begun with the whisper of a mute child; but the terror takes real root when a bomb falls on the tower block, making a massive hole in the ceiling, but doesn't explode. An elderly neighbour dies of a heart attack, his room right below the shell, shortly after the impact, Shideh's tries to save him, but her CPR1 doesn't work. The man's daughter insists that it wasn't the impact that killed him, it was a fright.

They take the bomb away and tarp over the hole in the roof, but the bomb has left something behind, a thing that is haunting Dorsa and Shideh. For the rest of the film, we see the haunting, initially ambiguous and then less and less so. Kimia vanishes, and Dorsa becomes increasingly distressed, increasingly terrified, while Shideh hears the voice of her husband telling her what a terrible mother she is.

It's only in the last fifteen minutes of the film that the haunting becomes unambiguous, and the malevolent spirit, even as it is fluid in shape, is tactile, solid.

Why, of all the people in the tower block, though, does the djinn pick Shideh and Dorsa to haunt? I think it's because Shideh doesn't respect it. She's Westernised, wants a life where a woman can drive a car without having people tell her husband to tell her how to work a garage door (when she rams the car right through the doors, man, that's satisfying), where she can do the Jane Fonda Workout without fear of getting in trouble with the law for it, where she can go to medical school, where the only roles open to her are wife and mother. And Shideh loves Dorsa, but she also resents her.

Parents make mistakes. Bringing up a child is insanely difficult and sometimes we fail to be the parents we want to be or mean to be. Shideh is a parent, no more and no less, and she is stuck in a horrible situation where escape is transitory and temporary (which I suppose puts the film in the same bracket as movies like Hideo Nakata's Dark Water and Jennifer Kent's The Babadook, which I suppose I should cover some time). There's a brutal moment where Shideh suddenly has to doubt whether she is with her daughter or if she's been left behind, and has to choose which is her daughter, and which is the phantom, and it's perfectly framed, and perfectly horrible. When, towards the end, mother and daughter find solidarity in the face of horror, it's entirely believable and emotionally satsifying, but it isn't enough.
I think the fact that Shideh is more Westernised, aside from making her the target of a phenomenon specifically called out as a piece of Islamic folklore (believing in djinns is to Islam exactly as believing in demons is to Christianity), makes the film an easier sell to a Western audience. Seriously, if you're marketing to Westerners, having the protagonist of a film be someone who wants to be like Westerners is probably a sensible move.

But all the same, Under the Shadow interrogates that; the djinn is no more or less than the driving momentum of history, of a time and place that itself will harry women like Shideh and by extension Dorsa into extinction or submission. It is telling, I think, that the two objects the djinn retains at the end of the film represent the mother's dream of escape and the daughter's freedom from fear. The war and the revolution, shitty situations the West caused in the first place,2 and the rise of uncompromising doctrines that punish anyone who doesn't conform, especially if you're a woman, close in, hound you, cannot be escaped. And what can the djinn really do? For all that it develops a sort of physicality later in the film, the most it does is pull hair, is threaten. Its power is the power of fear, of the shadow. It is here to scare Shideh into being "good". 

Under the Shadow is a film made with care. Its leads give outstanding performances and small details established early on – the position of a kitchen bin, the hiding place of a key, tape on a window to stop it shattering in a bomb blast – pay off later on in spades. Everything except for the dinner and a child's coat is graded in shades of brown, so that when the djinn appears, when the coat becomes a troubling thing, it contrasts. It shocks the eye. The film's pacing is exceptional, and not a single one of its eighty minutes are wasted. The dread that overshadows Shideh rises with each act of the film (the bomb doesn't fall until nearly half an hour in; we don't see anything that really looks like a ghost until the last twenty minutes).
Under the Shadow rewards the careful watcher, and like the best folk horror, it is cruelly political. It conforms to the pattern of a lot of folk horror narratives in that we have a protagonist who is an outsider who, isolated, doesn't share the prevailing belief structure of the surrounding people, and who is driven to an inevitable doom by an irresistible force of superstition. Except of course it's the prevailing belief structure of an entire nation at a pivotal point of twentieth century history and the setting is an international capitol. Which I suppose makes Under the Shadow peak urban wyrd: as the city is to the village so here are the concerns bigger, wider, even while the isolation is no less acute.

1Interesting CPR fact from when I did a CPR course: while Movie CPR works roughtly 50% of the time, CPR in the real world only works maybe one time in ten. (back)

2So while I was writing this, the Prodigy asked what I was writing about, and I said, a film about the Iran-Iraq war, and he asked why they had a war, and I tried to explain as neutrally as I could to my son about what happened to Iran's democracy after World War II, and why Iran had a dictator and then an Ayatollah, and he moved from disbelief to outrage pretty quickly. So I guess I'm doing something right as a parent. (back)