ZIR E SAYEH (UNDER THE SHADOW)
Explaining this film without a spoiler is not easy. The film is now being shown in Curzon cinemas in London and can be streamed on TVs from Curzon Cinema and BFI. The Iranian setting of the film makes a difference. Zir E Sayeh has been compared to the okay but nowhere near as impressive The Babadook. Both films use the fear of motherhood and doubts about maternal adequacy as the neurosis that will inspire the terror that follows. Horror movies about anxious and guilt-affected mothers challenged by a headstrong and truculent child constitute a genre. The 2002 film Dark Water by Hideo Nakata is a fine Japanese example. Most of the films in this genre deal with a woman coping with maternal responsibilities and a career in a fast moving modern world. Anxious, isolated and self-hating the imaginations of these mothers invoke phantoms.
Zir E Sayeh was part- financed by Wigwam films, which is a British company. There are also names in the credits that are not from the Arab world. But Babak Anvari the director is Iranian born and he has the sensibility that has distinguished the best of recent Iranian films. Zir E Sayeh has a confident and natural style, the characters are complex and vulnerable rather than heroic and glamorous, and there is an understanding of the gap that exists between how adults and children understand the world and what is happening. Parents and children make impossible demands and each believes in a world that bewilders the other generation. Nothing is as adept as Iranian cinema at catching the nervous exploration and trepidation of children.
Because of the rich context and the strength of the Iranian cinematic perspective, the director, Babak Anvari, almost without trying, expands the horror genre. Those in authority may feel that they can use religion to sanction pious and moral impositions but, away from the eye of the powerful and its servants, ordinary people will continue to decide what elements from the modern and traditional are relevant for their lives, what tempts or repels, what is virtuous or sinful. Shideh, the mother of Dorsa, wears t-shirts, trainers and slacks under the khimar that covers her neck and shoulders and she exercises to illegal Jane Fonda workout videos. Iran is a divided society, and so are the people who live there. Even the difference in how the flats are furnished reveals alternative attitudes to the present and the past. In this world there is scope not just for self-doubt but also for everyone to disapprove of the decisions that others make. This is a world of tension and secrets.
Rulers, though, will always find willing lackeys. The will of rulers is imposed by those who confuse servitude with achievement. In Zir E Sayeh the men who serve the powerful can be warriors, intellectuals or bureaucrats. The warriors, or the military, remind Shideh that she must cover her hair when she ventures outside and they inspect her car at routine roadblocks. The intellectuals at Medical School refuse to let Shideh resume her studies because she had a radical left-wing youth. They are unable to consider the implications of their decisions for someone who has potential. The bureaucrats are no help to anyone but look the other way because they want a quiet life. The warriors enjoy power, the intellectuals lack humanity and the bureaucrats fumble. It is the same everywhere but Iran experienced a revolution. It is the same in Iran but more so.
Shideh and ordinary citizens feel the pressure. Some of that pressure is released inside the home and between families. As in other Iranian films, the arguments in Zir E Sayeh arise out of both inconsequential details and misunderstandings. A misplaced doll and how the husband feels about the career of Shideh have consequence. There is affection between Shideh and her husband, and neither is an appalling human being, but it is difficult to understand someone else and the difficult decisions they have to make when you are preoccupied with your own decisions and identity. Rules are meant to be observed and negotiation avoided.
When Shideh tells a female neighbour that her pleas to be readmitted to medical school have been rejected, the elderly woman says, ‘Don’t let it change you.’ Identity is fragile, and personal worlds need to be kept private.
The relationship and conflict between mother, husband and daughter is well observed and believable. For long periods Narges Rashdi and Avin Manshedi, the actors who play mother and daughter, are obliged to carry the film on their own. Both are excellent. Rashdi combines the vulnerability and defiance that is essential for motherhood but exhausting, and Manshedi creates a child that is both charming and infuriating. Bobby Naderi is the husband Iraj who has to leave his wife and daughter while he fulfils his annual military service. Naderi has the look of a not quite as confident George Clooney. His smooth appearance and restrained manner is revealing. Iraj is a man who may be pulled by different cultures but he understands survival depends on the need for silence and compliance with whatever prevails.
If the clash between tradition and modernity were the only context that informed Zir E Sayeh, it would ensure that the film was memorable but the flat occupied by Shideh and her family is in Tehran. The bombing of the city by Iraq escalates after Iraj leaves. Bombing is another form of military invasion except it is remote and mysterious. Noise and explosions fill the sky and neighbourhood before aerial weapons invade bedrooms. The bomb that lands inside the flat of a neighbour invokes another horror movie set amidst military conflict, La Espina Del Diablo (The Devil’s Backbone). The narrative in that horror film is also shaped by childhood innocence and trust. The ghost is an unsurpassed metaphor for inexplicable invasion because ghosts or phantoms threaten not just danger but because they also demand attention and understanding. Zir E Sayeh avoids explicit politics, the film settles for reportage rather than polemic, but no one can watch the film without understanding the terrible burden of those who live in a society debating fundamental change and coping with invasion and destruction. The bombs outside make the flat where Shideh and Dorsah live a prison but it is worse than that. Most prisons are secure. These prisons, which people once assumed could be homes, explode and destroy the people inside.
The horror in the film mixes the mystical and the psychological. The audience is told that some of what Shideh sees definitely does happen and that some of it is imagined. For the mysterious rest the audience will just have to wonder. The effects are modest but this is a low-key film and well made. Any director who can make a fight with a linen sheet frightening has a competent grip and confidence. The shocks do exist, and the final scenes have impact. The struggle is challenging, and the heroine is vulnerable. Most viewers will gasp and urge on the characters in their fight.
Objects have an important part to play in the film. The phantom is defined as an object that is associated with security and warmth. Dorsah loses her doll, and Shideh searches for her Jane Fonda workout video. The medical textbook that Shideh keeps in a drawer is evidence of her need for economic independence and a career. The phantom is supposed to attach itself to objects that belong to those that it haunts. In any horror movie the victims delay running away from the ghosts, and in this it happens because a missing object is important. In Zir E Sayeh the mother and daughter will, whether they realise it or not, have to shape their lives without symbols. What this symbolism means for the Quran in Iranian society and whether such thinking is relevant is for others to decide.
There is one scene where Shideh pretends to use her medical skill to fix the doll of Dorsah. It appears that she is now able to combine the two significant demands made of an educated modern woman, motherhood and a career. This is the type of glib conclusion that happens in inferior films. But more follows the scene, and the end of the film is complex and mysterious. For many evacuation is the only way of dealing with the immediate threat of bombs. War, like revolution and social change, leaves a legacy. This will affect and haunt everyone wherever they happen to be. Men who are violent and powerful make life difficult for everyone. These men may be aware of the numbers and deaths and think that they understand the casualties. But for that the violent and powerful would have to know the personal and social dramas inside modest homes and flats and how those lives were shaped by the remote and violent conflict that the powerful are so often willing to inflict.
Howard Jackson has had five books published by Red Rattle Books. His latest book Choke Bay is now available here. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the other books of Howard Jackson and other great titles, click here.