The 1980s was a decade of Conservative resurgence. From Ronald Regan to Margaret Thatcher, the Atlantic sphere of influence was gripped by a moral fist that sought to castigate popular culture. Music was in American conservatives’ crosshairs. In Great Britain, the ‘video nasty’ was a censorship effort in reaction to horror’s availability in video cassettes. Home video was also the target of Revolutionary Iran. During the first years after the Islamic Revolution, Iranian authorities banned home video in all its forms. The latter was portrayed in 2016’s Under the Shadow, which followed a mother and daughter terrorized by a malevolent djinn. Director Babak Anvari’s film rises to distinction not only because of its 1980s Iranian setting or Persian dialogue but for its use of a video cassette as an act of rebellion and the mythic djinn as a proxy for the invasive power of a conservative government.

Under the Shadow takes place in 1988, the tail end of the Iran-Iraq War during a period known as the “War of the Cities,” where opponents indiscriminately rocketed and bombed cities like Baghdad and Tehran. In Under the Shadow, Narges Rashidi’s Shideh, a one-time revolutionary and medical student, is forced to stay home with her daughter, Dorsa, played by Avin Manshadi, while her husband leaves for the front. Immediately the film informs the viewer of Shideh’s status in society, showing her covered in a chador (a long cape and head-covering) as a college administrator informs her that she can no longer study medicine. The country she fought to change had quickly turned against Shideh. Now stuck in the small apartment with her daughter, as destruction literally wedges itself in the roof in the form of an unexploded missile, Shideh seeks release in her one private passion- Jane Fonda’s Workout videotape.

The tape, one of a handful of bootlegs in the family collection, and the VCR are diligently concealed to avoid notice by outsiders who might report the banned technology to authorities. Increasingly isolated, Shideh learns that Dorsa has an imaginary friend, a djinn. An entity with roots in Arabian paganism and mentioned in the Quran, the djinn lives like a shadow to humans forming relationships and societies. However, when the djinn and humans meet, Shideh learns that terror follows. The djinn, which never takes form outside of mimicking a chador or sheets, pushes the two out of the apartment and forces them into an unknown future. As the filmmakers carefully ratchet up the tension and leverage the ghostly djinn to maximum effect, the movie reveals a complex and nuanced subtext- censorship and the power of tradition.

The Jane Fonda Workout was Shideh’s most coveted possession, more than a textbook gifted to her by her mother. The iconic tape, selling 17 million copies worldwide, hides in a cabinet in bootleg form. Concealing it when not in use and never speaking of the cassette or the VCR to outsiders is drilled into Dorsa by Shideh. Watching the videotape is also a form of rebellion. Between 1983 and 1994, Iranian authorities banned all home video technology. Sprung as the Islamic Republic struggled to find footing, the ban was overseen by Mohammad Khatami’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. Video, Blake Atwood writes in The Little Devil Comes Home: Video, the State, and Amateur Cinema in Iran was called a “cancer” by Khatami, and editorialists said video machines were “’ little devils’ that families welcomed into their homes.” The ban, designed to coalesce the information and communication sphere of post-revolutionary Iran during a time of war, was no success. Atwood points out an underground industry of video bootleggers thrived in the Republic during the 1980s. Still, the presence of illicit video gear was not talked about in public or mixed company as the reach of the government meant public and private were under its gaze and control. The role of the videocassette in Under the Shadow is one of lifeline and rebellion. Shideh uses the Fonda workout to push herself physically, a sort of wrestle against an authority that would punish her for transgressing the codified moral laws. Demonstrating the importance of the video cassette after it goes missing was Shideh’s suspicion and beratement of Dorsa. However, it is left to the viewer to suspect it was the djinn all along. The videocassette was a modern threat to tradition, embodied in the djinn.

Leaders of the Iranian Republic understood the power of a simple tape. The country was partly born from the influential capacity of audio cassettes, Atwood notes. During his years in exile, Shi’a cleric and movement leader Ayatollah Khomeini recorded anti-western and religious speeches for followers in the Imperial State of Iran. Advocating for a religious overthrow of the secular government of Iran’s Shah, an American ally, Khomeini’s voice reached Iran via smuggled audio cassettes. Clandestinely distributed and listened to, the simple cassette tape gave momentum to Khomeini’s movement. Once a member of that movement, Shideh is marginalized and subjugated in Under the Shadow.

To Shideh, the video cassette is a lifeline to the outside world turned upside by war and conservatism. To the government, it was a threat to order and required controlling, if not outright destruction—a devil in plastic and magnetic tape. Shideh watches the aerobic videocassette on a television dominated by images of war in front of apartment windows crisscrossed with masking tape to stop glass from becoming shrapnel. When Shideh loses the videotape, the djinn gets the upper hand just as the government steadily takes control. The djinn was tradition come to snuff out modernity. The monster plaguing the mother and daughter becomes religious and political leaders, who seek to control the bodies and intellects of the populace, but with a more ruthless totality for women in society.

The Iranian Republic’s newly empowered Cultural Revolutionaries regulated every facet of daily life. All aspects of society were under the government’s thumb, from women’s clothing to what families were allowed to watch inside the home. Atwood notes, “contemporary Iran the public sphere is at the mercy of state regulation, which controls everything from social interactions to the outward appearance of religion.” At the same time, Atwood writes, the Islamic Republic saw communications and entertainment technology as “public space” and thus open to complete control. Under the Shadow shows the level of suffocating power of the conservative government. Rather than morality police raiding Shideh’s home, war punches a hole in her resolve, slowly eroding her ability to withstand the physical and mental onslaught. Stalked, watched, and haunted by the supernatural entity, Shideh and Dorsa plead for help or seek aid but are ignored. The monster at the heart of the film, the djinn, becomes a proxy for the all-encompassing power of the theocratic government, tapping into an invasive and stifling form of power exercised by totalitarians. The harnessing of myth serves tradition and conservatism as a tool of control, destabilizing with shock and attack equally as the roaming moral police or indiscriminate missile. The movie leverages the jinn into an agent of surveillance and punisher of transgressors. Its antiquity establishes the djinn as a guardian of ancient traditions. Those traditions, interpreted and reinterpreted over the centuries, knotted and bent to fit ever more conservative interpretations lead to the oppressive mechanisms and monsters within Under the Shadow.