Director Babak Anvari discusses his feature film debut Under the Shadow which premieres at Sundance Film Festival 2016
by Joanna Orland
Iranian born, London based director Babak Anvari is making a name for himself in the film industry. His short film Two & Two was nominated for a BAFTA in 2012, and his debut feature Under the Shadow is a highly anticipated selection in the Midnight Section at this year’s Sundance Film Festival in Utah.
I first met Babak in 2002 when we were both students at the University of Westminster – he was studying film, I was studying audio. After graduating, Babak went on to work as a director for MTV Live Sessions while continuing to make the short films which have led him to his success today.
Much like Two & Two, Under the Shadow is a story that stems from the director’s upbringing in Tehran. “In some ways it’s a very personal story,” says Babak. “The spark of it was from a conversation with my mom… Both me and my brother were quite timid children when we were growing up. And in this conversation, my mom said she blamed herself, because during those times that my dad was away at war as a doctor – because it was compulsive for him to serve – when he was away during those months, my mom was very anxious and very stressed out and afraid, and she thinks without realizing she passed on those fears onto us.”
The film is set in 1988 Tehran as Shideh’s husband is sent off to serve in the Iran-Iraq War, leaving her alone to care for her daughter Dorsa. Dorsa becomes ill and disturbed, which Shideh believes is caused by evil spirits who are possessing her daughter. In spite of raising political issues, this film focuses predominantly on the human side of war. “It’s a human story and it’s about how political things, political turmoil can affect individuals,” says Babak. “It’s mainly about how national hysteria can create personal hysteria. I’m a filmmaker, not a politician, so…”
Babak’s filmmaking background began at age 16 in Tehran, when he experimented making short films with his friends. The filmmaker cites Tim Burton and Steven Spielberg amongst his early influences, in addition to being filmmakers who continue to influence him today. “Right before going to shoot in Jordan, I watched Raiders of the Lost Ark on mute because I read an interview with Soderbergh saying… that on itself is like a film school. If you watch it without sound, you just see how much of a visual storyteller [Spielberg] is,” explains Babak. “Just to inspire myself, I did that.”
Presented as a horror story, Under the Shadow is nuanced with social and political commentary as well as personal elements of Babak’s childhood. “To be honest with you… when I started writing Under the Shadow… it sounds really funny, but I never thought of it as going to be a genre or horror film,” says Babak. “The more I started structuring the story, the more I realized it is going down that route. Because you can see it as horror or a psychological thriller, it’s very ambiguous in that sense,” he elaborates. “80’s Iran during the war… and after the revolution was… a very intense era. That’s why I chose the horror route, because I thought it was the perfect setting for a sort of intense horrific story.”
Our review of Under the Shadow