Filmmaker Babak Anvari on how his newest film uses horror to explore hysteria of Iran-Iraq war
Britain-based Iranian filmmaker Babak Anvari was in Jordan recently, where he teamed up with Dubai- and London-based production company Wigwam Films to shoot his new movie, Under the Shadow, which is set in Tehran amid the turmoil of the Iran-Iraq war.
Anvari began his filmmaking career in Iran at the turn of the century, completing his first animated short as a 16-year-old. “It took me a year to complete that first animation because I could only use the computer after 9pm as I had to study,” he says. “It went to a short-film festival in Tehran and received some attention, and ever since then I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker.”
With this goal in mind, the 19-year-old Anvari relocated to London in 2002, where he studied film and television production at the University of Westminster, and has worked largely in London ever since.
The high point of his career to date is the 2012 Bafta nomination for his short Two & Two, an Orwellian tale of a school where the syllabus is changed to reflect that two and two equals five. The film toured the world as part of Bafta’s international programme and has also proved a hit on YouTube with Iranian viewers, as well as international audiences.
Anvari now turns his lens to horror with Under the Shadow, a story of an unexploded missile that crashes through the roof of a home in Tehran. Shortly afterwards, the daughter of the house, Dorsa, falls ill, and with her husband away at war, her mother, Shideh, concludes that the missile has brought djinns into her home and that her daughter is possessed.
The film comes soon after last year’s Iranian vampire movie A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, which won rave reviews on the festival circuit, including at October’s Abu Dhabi Film Festival. With another hotly anticipated horror from a Bafta-nominated director on the way, are we witnessing the beginning of a golden age of Iranian horror?
“There was a lot of hype around A Girl ...,” says Anvari. “I was already working on this script at the time, and maybe Iranian filmmakers are finding their voice through the medium of horror. Iran has had a strong cinema for a long time, and despite all the restrictions, even filmmakers in Iran are making good films and getting around the restrictions. Of course, with the mass emigration from Iran, post-revolution, Iranian filmmakers are also popping up all over the world and finding their voice.”
Anvari concedes that horror is not a very popular genre in Iran, however he has his own reasons for exploring it. “I thought the setting in 80s Iran, post-revolution, and during the Iran-Iraq war was a great setting for a horror. It was a very intense era,” he says.
“The idea of a missile carrying evil spirits may be a strange one, but comes from the popular belief that djinn travel on the wind. That kind of inspired me, as missiles travel through the air, so I thought it was interesting for a missile to bring these forces from the air. It’s also partly the idea of this horrific alien thing crashing into your house and you don’t have your own space any more.”
Anvari’s team considered several locations for the shoot, including Iran and the UAE, but ultimately Amman seemed to be the best option. “I’d never been to Amman, but it was recommended to us and we knew films like Rosewater had shot there,” he says.
“Some of it really does remind me of Tehran and I felt quite nostalgic. Also, I liked the liberal attitude to filmmaking, there’s no real restrictions, at least that I was aware of, which of course there would have been if we’d shot in Iran. For example, my lead character would have had to wear a hijab if I’d filmed in Iran. This is a film about a woman trapped in her own home and it would just not have been believable to have her constantly wearing a headscarf. That was one of many reasons not to shoot in Iran. We did look at the UAE, too, and I’d love to shoot there in future, but ultimately Amman just suited better for this movie.”
The movie is in post-production in the United Kingdom and Anvari anticipates it will be completed by the end of the year. With the film not yet complete, release details and festival screenings are as-yet unconfirmed, but the timing and the producer’s Dubai connection bodes well for a debut at the Dubai International Film Festival. Anvari admits that he’d love to see the film screened at Diff, but for now we’ll have to wait and see.
Either way, he is confident of the film’s reception. “I think people will really want to see this film. It’s about an era that hasn’t really been talked about before. Nobody really knows much about the Iran-Iraq war era, the hysteria and political terror and how national hysteria can create personal hysteria. For me it’s [the film] not just a genre horror. There are other underlying themes and I think I’ve been successful in showing the sociopolitical undertones of the era as well.”