Shadows of the Night: Two Progressive Iranian-based Films in the Western Mainstream

If you happened to miss the films A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (released in 2014 and directed by Ana Lily Amirpour) and Under the Shadow (released in 2016 and directed by Babak Anvari), get thee a copy of both immediately and watch them. They are, by my determination at least, two of the most impressive films to be released from anywhere in the world in the last few years. In short, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a vampire film that generally focuses on the exploits of a young woman vampire, while Under the Shadow is a horror film that follows a young mother and her daughter who are haunted by a mysterious spirit called a Djinn.

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Both films are more or less set in fictionalised worlds, perhaps one (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) more so than the other (Under the Shadow). However, both films equally and effectively utilises the very real, contemporary background of Iran as its setting (even though they were both filmed outside of Iran, in California and Jordan respectively). A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is set in a fictional modern Iranian town called Bad City, while Under the Shadow is set in Tehran in the 1980s during the height of the Iran-Iraq War. They both mark the respective feature length film debuts of directors Ana Lily Amirpour and Babak Anvari, who both descend from Iranian families. The award-winning successes of these two films have quick-fastened the reputations of the two young directors, with many regarding them as up and coming auteurs. In these two projects, they have trail-blazed fresh new directions, not just for the tired horror genre or the over-flogged ‘vampire film’, but for film making as a whole. There is a buzzing energy, and yet also a subtle flair to both of their styles, and considering their command in exploring very relevant themes (gender inequality, social oppression, ethnic diversity and the proliferation of fear), it certainly has a welcome place in this current world.

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A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is shot in black and white and concerns a young man called Arash and a mysterious young woman, who has no name. At the outset, we are introduced to a cat-carrying Arash who looks after his father by feeding his heroin addiction. Arash struggles to find the funds to pay his menacing drug dealer, Saeed, and so resorts to opportunistic thievery. We then follow Saeed as he wanders the street, fulfilling his sleazy role as a pimp as well as a heroin dealer. He, however, finds himself being seduced by a chador-wearing girl, who turns out to be a vampire and kills him after they go back to his apartment. In coming to make another drug deal, Arash finds Saeed dead and decides to rob his possessions which includes drugs and money. He then ends up stoned and on the street late at night where he encounters the girl on a skateboard, and they begin a relationship.

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The narrative of Under the Shadow is less funky and surrounds the more harrowing circumstances of a woman called Shideh and her family, who live in a city constantly under attack from Iraqi artillery shelling. She is kicked out of medical school for having hung around with student protest groups, and when she returns home to her small apartment, her husband is called up to fight on the frontline in the war, leaving her on her own to look after their young daughter, Dorsa. When a young orphaned boy moves in with the neighbours and tells Dorsa that there is an evil spirit in the building, things start getting weird. The boy gives her a lucky charm to hold on to so that she will stay safe, but Shideh dismisses this as nonsense and throws it away, later understanding from the boy’s foster parents that he is actually mute. Both Shideh and Dorsa then experience terrorising nightmares and apparitions around the house. They also have to constantly deal with air raid sirens and the potential of shells dropping on their apartment block, which eventually force all of their neighbours to leave.

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As stated above, there are many common themes explored in these films, but primary amongst them is feminism. This is mainly down to the lead roles being afforded to strong female characters – ‘The Girl With No Name’ in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and Shideh in Under the Shadow. But it is not just these two characters. There are several other female characters who have important roles to play too, from the prostitute in A Girl walks Home at Night who has been ripped off and abused by her male pimp, to Shideh’s neighbour who does not have the same passion for freedom as Shideh but yet admires her. With feminism being strong subject matters and the settings being in Iran, a country notorious for its lack of women’s rights, it is without surprise to find that female oppression is focused on pretty heavily in both of these movies. Shideh in Under the Shadow, for example, is denied a chance to fulfill her mother’s desire for her to become a medical practitioner because she is seen as leftist and dangerous. Almost all of the outdoor, nocturnal scenes with the girl in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night are depicted with a tinge of rebellion and lawlessness, as mad as that sounds. A stoned Arash asks her when they first meet under a neon light: ‘Why are you here?’, likely referring to the fact that, as a woman, she should not be out at night.

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Narges Rashidi plays the character of Shideh with a genuine and justified sense of being pissed off all the time. She has a seemingly non-misogynistic husband and her life in the home appears to be as free as it could be – she is not someone who takes shit from people and this is tested on many occasions with her neighbours. However, outside of the home is a different story. It is very clear that she is shackled by the Iranian authorities just because she is a woman. This is demonstrated when she is arrested by soldiers on the street for not wearing her hijab, even though she and her daughter have quickly fled their haunted apartment in fear of their lives.

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The rebellion expressed by the main character in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is understandable given that she is a vampire, and this allows her a type of superpower over her potential male suppressors. She wanders the dark streets at night, albeit in a chador (I suppose to give her more mystic), with the apparent intent to put men in their place. For example, she stalks a young kid seemingly minding his own business and terrifies him into saying that he will become a ‘good boy’. The issue with other perceived ‘bad’ male characters such as Arash’s dad or Saeed the drug dealer puts this scene in perspective.

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Apart from being dismayed by, or just plain ignorant of (as in the vampire’s case), archaic social norms, the two women end up expressing very relatable and normal traits underneath. Shideh’s love and commitment to her daughter is never overplayed, and sometimes questioned when the Djinn’s evil gets between them. But there is a noticeable solid connection there that binds them together, and thus brings the films core of familial strength to the foreground. In A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, although it is never explained why the girl is a vampire (or how much of her is actually human), she does end up showing a distinct vulnerability in her falling in love with Arash, deciding not to bite his neck even when the opportunity presents itself. In the end, the symbolism of freedom expressed in both women is through their unwillingness to succumb to fear. Unafraid to want to become a medical student. Unafraid to skateboard the streets at night. Unafraid to leave a house when it is not safe inside. Unafraid to do whatever the hell you want as long it is not detrimental to others.

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The sexuality presented in both films is also note-worthy. Given that Iran has attempted to suppress sexuality throughout its history, I think it is ironic how fundamental it is to the success of both films. Amirpour deliberately cultivates a sensual and provocative style in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, personified with aplomb through Sheila Vand’s ultra-cool, and entirely original, performance as the vampire. She wanders around the streets covered head to toe in black keen to seduce and use her sexuality to drive her own goals, while indoors she care-freely dances and listens to modern music (including a nice interlude of that mid-noughties White Lies anthem ‘Death’). In Under the Shadow (a title with obvious euphemistic play on words), Shideh appears initially shrouded in a black hijab speaking to (or rather been spoken to) her male superior. But when she is back in her apartment, her hijab is off and she has no reason to mince her words. She wears normal clothes, works out to Jane Fonda fitness videos in front of the TV and is noticeably freer. Both films are unafraid to expose the ridiculousness and hypocrisy of female sexual oppression. Directors Amirpour and Anvari are clearly honing the point that there is nothing wrong with expressing ones sexuality.

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The well-worn genres of horror and vampirism are very familiar to western audiences, but perhaps not as openly explored in Iranian cinema. For all the bombastic pomp that goes with the usual Hollywood attempts down these lines, Amirpour and Anvari have given us something new and very original here, and I think this is down to the Middle-Eastern influence. There is a more subtle approach to elements of horror and violence in both of these films and this is likely due to smaller budgets. The minimal special effects are admirably utilised to communicate an appropriate level of horror and they never come across as tasteless or cheap. Both films are very effective in evoking scares out of the audience. A huge unexploded missile sticking through the roof of the apartment block in Under the Shadow has to be seen to be believed, while the girl’s rapid change from defenceless innocent to overpowering and fanged vampire in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is quite terrifying.  Under the Shadow will have you on the edge of your seat because you have no idea how far the Djinn will go, while A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night will grip you because you have no idea what the girl is actually capable of.

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What we end up with here are two instant classics. And I say this first from a western-perspective. They are innovative (Under the Shadow) and sexy (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) additions to the horror/vampire canon, and are accessible enough to be enjoyed and related to by an English-speaking audience, despite the subtitles. Nowadays, we must acknowledge that diversity in film is more than just having tokenistic representations of other cultures. The makers of Ghost in a Shell and The Great Wall should take heed! It is about breaking down the barriers and embracing other cultures wholly. If the film is set in a Middle Eastern country, then the majority of actors should be descended from that part of the world, and the language spoken should be expected to be something other than English. Authenticity of culture, its warts and all, is important to films like Under the Shadow and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night – they can make a political point without ramming it down your throat and still look sleek and well-made. In places like North America, Europe and Australia, where a certain type of popular movie has thrived in the mainstream since like forever, it is not so hard to sit down and ‘enjoy’ films like these while also getting a bit of an education. It is only too appropriate that we see more films like this coming out in the western world, particularly as the displacement of people through war and conflict in regions like the Middle East becomes more prevalent. There is a deeply-set humanity to all of this and both Amirpour and Anvari are keenly aware of that, and admirably try to communicate that through popular-styled films.

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