Folks, let’s be honest: last week was rough. I took a fan favorite and dragged it through the mud. I meant every word, and it’s the tough stuff that changes hearts and minds, but still. Everyone needs a win now and again and have I got a doozy for you.
Enter Under the Shadow (2016) by Iranian-born director Babak Anvari. A horror movie with all the classic creeps and timeless terrors in the context of revolution, war, and Middle Eastern feminism. How could you possibly go wrong?
The Bechdel Test. For those who are unfamiliar, the Bechdel Test refers to a standard casually suggested in the cartoon Dykes to Watch Out For by Alison Bechdel. The statement made in the comic was broken into three parts:
(1) The movie has to have at least two women (2) who talk to each other (3) about something besides a man.
What Alison maintains was just a thought between friends has turned out to be an incredibly difficult test to pass in mass media. Not for Under the Shadow, which boasts a female protagonist protecting her female child while all of her major conversations are with female neighbors about the disturbances, not men.
Female representation. The main character, Shideh, is a far cry from a helpless stereotype. She is driven, intelligent, complex, and independent; a revolutionary whose political involvement cost her career as a doctor. Her mother, though deceased in the film, is represented through her gift of a medical textbook to her daughter; a promise of a better life for her daughter in a country where women’s opportunities were minimal. Shideh’s daughter, Dorsa, is headstrong, and her neighbors, Mrs. Ebrahimi and two other women, are the figureheads keeping their world’s turning in the midst of a terrible war.
Diversity. There’s nothing that screams “You’re missing the point!” more than a faux feminist movie full of white ladies. As Audre Lorde puts it, “I am not free while any woman is unfree.” What much of American feminism lacks is an understanding of Middle Eastern and Muslim women. We are quick to judge our sisters in hijabs for succumbing to a patriarchal society while we call ourselves liberated for reading Fifty Shades of Grey. I will avoid 900 words on why the choice to wear hijab is a feminist act, but I will tell you that Shadow deals with this subject masterfully. At the height of danger, Shideh grabs her daughter and flees their home, and instead of being offered help, she is arrested for being in public without her chador (a cover specific to Iran). The film highlights the absurdity of man-made laws valuing a woman’s modesty over her safety without ever undermining the other women in the film who wear their hijab proudly. A virtue of having this story told by an Iranian is the agency his characters are given. A Guardian article aptly surmises that Anvari “seems in awe of the women who were forced to live, and raise children, under the threat of carpet bombs and the intolerance of the post-revolution regime.” In the same Guardian article, the director sums it up in a way I never could:
“There’s a misconception about Iranian women,” says Anvari. “People think of them as oppressed, ready to be victimised. But Iranian women always fight back. There are so many restrictions in Iranian society, but they never sit back and just accept them. Shideh was inspired by my mother, and the other women I knew when I was growing up. Her strength is a tribute to them.”
Under the Shadow is not only a stunning look at Tehran during the Iran-Iraq war but a perfectly executed horror film. I was on the edge of my seat as rumors of djinns (supernatural creatures) infected the psyche of the building and consistently startled with quick and clever appearances by the evil spirits. If you’re looking to expand your worldview while biting your fingernails, this Persian language film is one you can’t afford to overlook.
Until next time, ghost hunters. Mac, out.