At the end of the year, I like to look back at the films I have seen (this year, about 130 in all, which is lower than average for me) and report to the great Legion of Leia which feature films had the strongest feminist message. In a year where a woman ran for president and lost to a not-so-guarded misogynist, winnowing out these films has become more and more important. Feminism needs to remain a vital part of the conversation, else the fight begin to falter.
There were several notable films this year that dealt with feminist issues, and I have previously written about the female-positive issues in 2016’s Neighbors 2, but two films this year are worth seeking out, not only for their feminist messages, but because both of them are among the best films of 2016. I will begin with a little-seen horror movie that got no acclaim, but is most certainly worth the hunt: The Iranian haunted house thriller Under the Shadow, a.k.a. زیر سایه .
Under the Shadow, written and directed by Babak Anvari, is a film that sneaks up on you. It is styled with such a relaxed, naturalistic narrative, that the appearance of the supernatural is truly unexpected, even when viewers may be looking for it. And while it’s always a treat to discover an effective and resourceful low-budget horror film that manages to crawl under your skin with simple, elegant, unpretentious filmmaking techniques, the real impact of Under the Shadow comes from its underlying themes of social oppression, the yoke of domesticity, and the institutionalized subjugation of women.
Under the Shadow takes place in 1980s Tehran, a time when Iran was embroiled in a war with Iraq while it was still working its way through its own governmental revolution. The details may be half-remembered by children of the ’80s who may recall president Ronald Reagan talking about it. The political and cultural details are too complex to get into here, needless to say, this was not a good time to be a woman in Tehran. Women were being forced back into the homes, forced to wear a certain wardrobe, and were suddenly being denied by the new regime simple civil rights. Like an education.
Feminism in America tends to be generally a cultural matter, and the ongoing fight is about tamping down bad attitudes about women, and fighting for equal pay. It’s a social war just as much as it is a political war. When we travel to a time and place where the oppression of women was more outwardly institutionalized, and actually recorded in a nation’s laws, it reminds us that we are actually not so far away from outright oppression ourselves. The 1980s wasn’t so long ago, and the fight is just as urgent as ever. As much as we’d like to think so, Under the Shadow reminds us that we are not yet living in a post-feminist world.
The lead character of Under the Shadow is a medical student named Shideh (Narges Rashidi) who is told at the film’s outset that she is not allowed to continue her medical studies because of her association with a few student protest groups. The choice looks like it’s a political one, but a savvy audience may begin to sense that sexism may be at work. But, for the time being, let us accept that the choice to deny Shideh her studies was wholly politically motivated.
Shideh then returns home to find her husband Iraj (Bobby Naderi) has been called away from the home to work as a medic in the battlefield. He’s essentially been drafted. Shideh has little choice but to stay in a war-torn city to look after her and Iraj’s daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi). The choice is one of the most difficult things Shideh can do, as it means she is now condemned to live the domestic life she has, as an intelligent woman, previously chosen to eschew.
Feminism is about choice, of course, and allowing women to live the lives they want. But when you’re in a social milieu that purports choice, but only really allows for an old-fashioned notion of motherly domesticity, then you live in an age of actual oppression. Shideh loves her daughter, but resents having to stay home with her. As the war percolates outside, the inside of Shideh’s home becomes equally turbulent, represented by the sudden intrusion of an unexploded missile that puncture her apartment, killing an upstairs neighbor.
On the missile, there seems to be a shadowy invisible presence. A ghost, or a djinn. As the film progresses, this presence becomes increasingly visible to Shideh and Dorsa, Dorsa begins behaving more and more strangely, and it’s not long before everyone openly realizes that they’re living in a haunted house.
The metaphor for war is the most apparent. An instrument of destruction inserts itself into your life, and even if it doesn’t kill you, the insidious cloud of wartime death and violent evil can still hang heavily over you, like a shadow. But the impact of the missile seems to serve another symbolic function, and that is the deterioration of Shideh’s feminist resolve.
Shideh suffers from nightmares and hallucinations over the course of Under the Shadow, clearly suffering from a personal anxiety. It’s understandable that she would be anxious – she’s living in the middle of a war zone – but there is something more complex at work. The nightmares and the visitations are a cultural specter, haunting her, trying to make her feel terrible about her station. Iranian society has looked at her, and deemed her to be only talented as a nurturing, stay-at-home mother figure. She is being forced to serve the household and a husband. A husband who, not incidentally, doesn’t care about her, and who is even absent from the picture. She knows she’s better than this, but her circumstances – of having to be a homemaker – has begun to erode her resolve. She is being forced by evil forces to reconsider her strength as a woman.
It may be a blunt metaphor to be sure, but Under the Shadow is told with such a gentle realistic tone that it may not seem immediately obvious. This is kitchen-sink filmmaking, where the camera observes more than constructs. We are forced into the ugly, spare, awful interiors of a dingy Iranian apartment, unable to accept that something more than quiet misery exists. But it’s exactly this kind of place where quiet misery can grow into something Mephistophelean. The supernatural – the adversarial forces that feed on misery – has sought a woman with strength, and seeks to undermine every shred of her confidence. The ghost is little different from an online misogynist who casually throws out sexist epithets to make woman feel terrible. And what does the ghost want? Nothing. It has no agenda. It simply wants unhappiness to proliferate.
Many recent horror movies – even the clunky cheapies – have featured female leads, and, as such, many of them have feminist underpinnings. These are strong women who must fight, essentially, a house. Most of these films, then, tend to be – at least in a small way – about a female’s struggle against the ancient clichéd image of woman-as-homemaker. Under the Shadow is one of the more technically graceful and emotionally important films to come out of the genre this year.
Witney Seibold has been a film critic for over 20 years, and is currently the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast on CraveOnline. He also co-hosts the TV podcast Canceled Too Soon. You can contact him on Twitter at @WitneySeibold.
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