Under the Shadow

UK/Jordan/Qatar 2016, 84 mins
Director: Babak Anvari

There’s nothing new about a ghost story in which a lone mother must protect her child or children from supernatural forces, but there is something new about its context in this film. Under the Shadow is ostensibly set in Tehran in 1988 (though filmed by UK-based Iranian director Babak Anvari in Jordan), and its newness lies in a fresh and informed twist on Islamic and pre-Islamic belief systems, since it is a story about the djinn, supernatural creatures mentioned in The 1,001 Nights, the Hadith and the Koran. Since ghost-belief is very much influenced by era and culture, djinns are variously described by the scholarly as downgraded pagan gods (there were originally 360 worshipped in pre-Islamic Mecca), generic unclean spirits given to possessing humans, or simply a divinely ordained society of unusual spiritual beings set between mankind and the angels. Increasingly, though, they’re perceived as something nearer to the ‘poltergeist’ of Hollywood cinema, almost entirely malignant non-corporal creatures that like to meddle with domestic situations, cause fright and create divisions between parent and child. They mess with the heads of people in stress situations, a cognitive drama that serves very well in film.

There’s a bit of The Devil’s Backbone (2001) in the ticking bomb, a bit of The Babadook (2014) in the single-mother vulnerabilities and the trashcan infelicities (did the ghost throw it out/did the child?), a bit of Mama (2013) in the mothering issues, and a touch of Japanese horror in the vision of the daughter’s face reduced to little but an enormous mouth (the folkloric Ohaguro-bettari yokai).

This is more conventional and less stylised than that other para-Iranian horror A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014). Its ancestor is certainly Nakata Hideo’s Dark Water (2002), though it suffers in comparison with that masterpiece of the genre. Childhood possessions come and go on the whim of the elemental entity – a red bag in Nakata, a doll here. A crack on the ceiling (a water stain in Dark Water) speaks of a leaking/splintering of sanity in the mother. For the djinn, it is a portal, which Shideh tries to tape up. How-mad-is-the-mother questions lurk, as they always do in such movies.

The ensemble acting is solid, but the two female leads are excellent. The filming style and palette are usually restrained and muted, with some handheld close ups, the odd prowling camera move to suggest a presence and some straight-up and unapologetic trick-shots in the dream sequences. The soundtrack plays effectively with the idea that these unclean spirits, made out of smokeless fire, travel restlessly on the air, and so the mournful wail of wind, the air-raid klaxon and sometimes a call to prayer murmur remorselessly in the background, and are all equally a threat.
Roger Clarke, Sight and Sound, October 2016

Director Babak Anvari on ‘Under the Shadow’
Following his BAFTA-nominated short film Two & Two, Iranian-born writer Babak Anvari makes his screenwriting and directorial debut with Under the Shadow: a low-budget, Farsi-language horror, which premiered at Sundance to universal acclaim.

Set in Tehran in 1988, against the backdrop of the Iran-Iraq war, Anvari’s debut is a terrifying allegory of the real-life conflict that marked his youth, imbued with his own childhood memories. The film centres on Shideh (Narges Rashidi), an aspiring doctor determined to resume her medical studies, but unable to do so due to her past political activism. When her husband is drafted off to the war, Shideh is left alone to protect their daughter Dorsa from the supernatural force brought into their building by a missile attack. Bracingly feminist in tone, the film is as much an expressionist exercise in genre as it is a portrait of female oppression.

What are the films that inspire your approach to genre filmmaking?

I was really inspired by Polanski’s early films, like Repulsion [1965] and The Tenant [1976]. Guillermo del Toro was also a big inspiration because he loves making films in the backdrop of a real event, like the Spanish Civil War. All these films suddenly merged in my head and eventually became Under the Shadow.

What was your inspiration behind the script?

The main inspiration came from my childhood memories; I was born in Iran and was more or less the same age as the child in the film when the war ended. It was a time of excitement and nervousness – as a child everything seems exciting. I remember the noise of the sirens and the times when I would run down to the basement, knowing that if you don’t go down there, something bad could happen. Thinking about those memories and talking with my parents, particularly my mother, really inspired the script.

The film is a work of fiction, not autobiography, but my father was a young doctor at that time who had to go and serve in the war. That element from my own life, along with the anxieties that my mother had when my father went away, formed a huge part of the story. Other parts are the stories from family friends and relatives about life at that time – obviously heavily dramatised and fictionalised. Whilst our building never got hit by a missile, we had family friends who went through that. Everyone experienced that time in their own way and has great stories to tell.

In the film, the supernatural horror also acts a metaphor for the war. Did horror feel like the natural choice to depict those troubled times?

Completely. When you look at a lot of horror films, the horror is classically a metaphor for repression. The setting I chose is all about repression, so it made sense to me to go down that route.

The film has been applauded for being refreshingly feminist. What was important to you when developing the role of Shideh?

I didn’t really set out to write a feminist story, it just came naturally. I wanted to tell the tale of a woman stuck in a man’s world, who is trying to figure out her place in society. As she does this, things start unravelling – she starts unravelling. The starting point was a conversation with my mother where I realised the character had to be a parent. It wasn’t until I sat back and looked at the film that I realised that all the men are in the background.

The parent-child relationship occupies a large section in the history of horror. What attracted you to explore those dynamics?

This probably stems from my fears of becoming a parent, because it is such a huge responsibility. I always find it interesting how everyone has their own philosophy and way of being a parent. There is no one way. Parenthood is a very universal and relatable theme – everyone understands the relationship between a mother and child.

How did you approach working with such a young actress on a horror film?

Avin Manshadi was extremely talented. From day one rehearsing scenes was more like playing – like, ‘I’ll be the big bad wolf, and you be the three little pigs.’ I did this with her to get her trust; telling her it was a made-up story and that none of it is real. She got it instantly. She had never acted before. She tried to absorb a lot from Narges and after four days on set she was like a professional actress.

As the story evolves, the film breaks away from conventional framing, with the camera rotating 90 degrees or panning out to reveal something previously unseen on screen.

This was an ongoing conversation with my DP Kit Fraser, whom I have known since film school. He read almost every draft of the film and when it came to shooting we planned it together, spending nine hours a day on the scenes – planning is really key as a filmmaker. We only had 21 days to shoot the film, but knew what we wanted to achieve. We wanted the film to be very naturalistic at the start, like an Iranian social drama, but as it develops and we get more and more into Shideh’s head, things start to shift. The key thing was for the shift to be more expressionist – but I wanted it to happen smoothly.
Babak Anvari interviewed by Olivia Howe, Sight and Sound, October 2016

Director: Babak Anvari
Production Company: Wigwam Films
Supported by: Doha Film Institute
Executive Producers: Sanjay Shah, Nick Harbinson, Patrick Fischer, Duncan McWilliam, Khaled Haddad
Produced by: Lucan Toh, Emily Leo, Oliver Roskill
Co-producer: Donall McCusker
1st Assistant Director: Yanal Kassay
2nd Assistant Director: Dan Clarke
Casting Co-ordinator: Emad Mohtaseb
Script Supervisor: Haya Kattan
Written by: Babak Anvari
Director of Photography: Kit Fraser
Visual Effects Supervisor: Marcin Kolendo
Editor: Chris Barwell
Production Designer: Nasser Zoubi
Art Director: Karim Kheir
Costume Designer: Phaedra Dahdaleh
Make-up and Hair Designer: Farah Jadaane
Music Composers: Gavin Cullen, William McGillivray
Supervising Sound Designer: Alex Joseph
Sound Recordist: Fadi Shehadeh

Narges Rashidi (Shideh)
Avin Manshadi (Dorsa)
Bobby Naderi (Iraj)
Ray Haratian (Mr Ebrahimi)
Arash Marandi (Dr Reza)
Aram Ghasemy (Mrs Ebrahimi)
Soussan Farrokhnia (Mrs Fakur)
Behi Djanati Atai (Pargol)
Hamidreza Djavdan (Mr Fakur)
Bijan Daneshmand (director)
Sajjad Delafrooz (secretary)
Nabil Koni (Mr Bijari)
Zainab Zamamiri (Sogand)
Khaled Zamamiri (Ali)
Karam Rashayda (Mehdi)

UK/Jordan/Qatar 2016
84 mins

Nosferatu (Nosferatu – Eine Symphonie des Grauens)
Mon 17 Oct 20:50; Sun 13 Nov 15:50 (+ intro by Silent Film Curator Bryony Dixon); Sat 19 Nov 14:10
Tue 18 Oct 20:50; Fri 28 Oct 18:20; Tue 8 Nov 18:20; Sun 27 Nov 13:00
The Skeleton Key
Wed 19 Oct 18:00; Mon 14 Nov 20:45
Meet the Monsters: A Season Introduction
Thu 20 Oct 19:30 BFI YouTube
I Walked With a Zombie
Thu 20 Oct 20:40; Tue 1 Nov 18:10
Creature from the Black Lagoon (3D)
Sat 22 Oct 18:15 (+ pre-recorded intro by Mallory O’Meara, award winning and bestselling author of ‘The Lady from the Black Lagoon’); Sat 29 Oct 11:40; Tue 1 Nov 20:50
In Dreams Are Monsters Quiz
Sun 23 Oct 19:00-22:00 Blue Room
Kuroneko (Yabu no naka no kuroneko)
Tue 25 Oct 20:45; Mon 31 Oct 21:00; Fri 18 Nov 18:15
The Fly
Wed 26 Oct 21:00
La Llorona
Thu 27 Oct 20:30; Mon 7 Nov 21:00
Celluloid Screams and Live Cinema UK presents: Ghostwatch + Q&A
Fri 28 Oct 20:20
Fri 28 Oct 20:45; Tue 8 Nov 20:50
A Nightmare on Elm Street
Sat 29 Oct 18:30; Wed 30 Nov 20:50
Sat 29 Oct 20:45; Thu 17 Nov 20:50 (+ intro)
Nightbreed – Director’s Cut
Sun 30 Oct 15:10 (+ intro); Sat 12 Nov 20:35
28 Days Later
Mon 31 Oct 18:00 (+ Q&A with director Danny Boyle); Sat 26 Nov 20:45
Tue 1 Nov 20:40; Sat 19 Nov 15:10; Tue 29 Nov 20:40
The Autopsy of Jane Doe
Wed 2 Nov 18:10; Sat 26 Nov 20:40
Let’s Scare Jessica to Death
Wed 2 Nov 20:45; Sat 19 Nov 20:45
Thu 3 Nov 20:55; Sat 26 Nov 13:00
Fri 4 Nov 18:30; Sat 19 Nov 12:10; Sun 20 Nov 18:30
Fright Night
Fri 4 Nov 20:50; Tue 22 Nov 20:40 (+ intro)
Sat 5 Nov 20:20 (+ intro by author Kier-La Janisse); Sun 27 Nov 15:30
Ganja & Hess
Mon 7 Nov 18:00; Sat 26 Nov 15:20
Wed 9 Nov 20:40; Sat 26 Nov 18:20
The Entity
Fri 11 Nov 17:55; Tue 15 Nov 20:30
Def by Temptation
Wed 16 Nov 18:10 (+ intro); Sat 26 Nov 18:10
Jennifer’s Body
Sun 20 Nov 15:15; Mon 21 Nov 18:00; Fri 25 Nov 20:45
Mon 21 Nov 20:30; Sun 27 Nov 12:20
Under the Shadow
Wed 23 Nov 20:40; Tue 29 Nov 18:10
Ouija: Origin of Evil
Thu 24 Nov 20:40; Mon 28 Nov 18:10
Pet Sematary
Fri 25 Nov 18:15; Mon 28 Nov 20:40
Good Manners (As Boas Maneiras)
Sun 27 Nov 18:10; Wed 30 Nov 20:25

City Lit at BFI: Screen Horrors – Screen Monsters
Thu 20 Oct – Thu 15 Dec 18:30-20:30
Beyond Nollywood World Premiere: Inside Life + Q&A with director Clarence A Peters
Sat 29 Oct 14:00
Matchbox Cine presents House of Psychotic Women
Sat 5 Nov 17:50
Son of Ingagi + Panel Discussion
Wed 9 Nov 18:10
Live Commentary with Evolution of Horror, Brain Rot and The Final Girls
Sat 19 Nov 18:00
Big Monster Energy
Tue 22 Nov 18:30

Welcome to the home of great film and TV, with three cinemas and a studio, a world-class library, regular exhibitions and a pioneering Mediatheque with 1000s of free titles for you to explore. Browse special-edition merchandise in the BFI Shop.We're also pleased to offer you a unique new space, the BFI Riverfront – with unrivalled riverside views of Waterloo Bridge and beyond, a delicious seasonal menu, plus a stylish balcony bar for cocktails or special events. Come and enjoy a pre-cinema dinner or a drink on the balcony as the sun goes down.

Enjoy a great package of film benefits including priority booking at BFI Southbank and BFI Festivals. Join today at

We are always open online on BFI Player where you can watch the best new, cult & classic cinema on demand. Showcasing hand-picked landmark British and independent titles, films are available to watch in three distinct ways: Subscription, Rentals & Free to view.

See something different today on

Join the BFI mailing list for regular programme updates. Not yet registered? Create a new account at

Programme notes and credits compiled by the BFI Documentation Unit
Notes may be edited or abridged
Questions/comments? Contact the Programme Notes team by email