The opening night gala for the Toronto After Dark Film Festival was a foreign film – Under the Shadow. While that in and of itself is nothing surprising, it being an Iranian film is. This is a first for both the festival and for myself. But since it was co produced by a UK company and directed by Babak Anvari (a UK citizen who is originally from Iran), it will be Britain’s official entry into the Academy Awards Foreign Language Film category, also a first for the festival. Apparently, as festival director & founder Adam Lopez let the sold out audience know before the screening, Babak was still living in Iran for the Iran-Iraq War that serves as the backdrop to this film. Lopez also discussed that his own father was in Iran during that time making it feel like a very personal choice to have Under the Shadow open the festival.

The film begins with a foreword to help give some context to people like myself who are unfamiliar with the particular history of these two countries. The war began in September 1980 and lasted until August 1988. The war was long and brutal with casualties/deaths numbering in the hundreds of thousands (the exact number is still debated). This backdrop is all part of what helps make the ghost story at the heart of the film that more intense. It also helps muddy the waters regarding if it is truly a ghost story or some form of PTSD.

The story is about a mother and daughter who are trying to survive in Tehran after the revolution took place and reverted the country back to the religious fundamentalism that we see today. Shideh, the mother played by Narges Rashidi, begins the film by trying to get back into school to resume her studies to become a doctor. However, due to her radical politics during the revolution, she is forbidden from continuing. It becomes very clear that she does not fully follow the tenets of the religion that has swept back over the country. She works out to Jane Fonda video tapes, listens to American pop music and doesn’t like to always wear her hijab so much that she forgets about it at times. She is a very smart woman who loves her family but is having a hard time due to the recent passing of her mother a few months earlier.

When Shideh’s husband leaves for his yearly military service tour she is left in their apartment with their young daughter Dorsa, played by Avin Manshadi. It is a difficult time as they are trying to live their lives while a war rages all around them. Tehran is the latest city to be targeted by the Iraqi military and missile attacks are quite common. During this the time, Dorsa is comforted by her most prized possession – a doll named Kimia. The doll becomes even more important to Dorsa as the landlord’s nephew who recently started staying with them has been telling Dorsa and his cousins all about Djinn, telling them that they come on the wind in times of high anxiety. The middle of a war is the perfect breeding ground for unparalleled anxiety among the residents. Dorsa begins to keep a ball of magical cat fur under her pillow to ward off the Djinn. One day her mother finds it as she is cleaning up her room and throws it away. From there, things proceed to get worse and more strange for the family, especially when Kimia disappears. This causes Dorsa’s anxiety to spike without her best friend and protector.

One of the great things about this film is that even when they see things or describe what’s happening to them, it’s hard to tell whether it’s real or the effects of the PTSD they are surely suffering from. To say that anyone could live in any type of conflict area and not feel PTSD is not logical. This gives the film that extra layer questioning who is actually doing what to whom throughout. By the time we get to end, some will firmly believe there was a Djnn haunting the family and others will say it was them and their PTSD that caused the events to unfold the way they did.

Regardless of which way you fall when you watch it, you will see a great movie. One that is trying to shock, scare and make us sympathize with not just the family but an entire people who had to live through such a horrible war. A war that its effects are still felt today in the continued strife between the two nations.

This is a beautiful movie with strong performances by it’s leads and layers of messages about family, religion, politics and war. This was a great way to open this years Toronto After Dark Film Festival in it’s 11th year. Please check out Under the Shadows if you get a chance to, it’s amazing.

If you’re gonna geek out, GEEK HARD!