A Nightmare on Valiasr Street: Persian-Language Diasporic Horror Films and the Cultural Capital of "Iranian" Cinema

By Kelly Houck
Submitted to Session P4988 (Anxieties, Resistances, and the Clergy in Egyptian and Iranian Film, 2017 Annual Meeting
Media Arts
19th-21st Centuries; Cinema/Film; Diaspora/Refugee Studies; Iranian Studies;
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
Ana Lily Amirpour's "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night" (2014) and Babak Anvari's "Under the Shadow" (2016) have boldly claimed the horror genre as the next frontier for Iranian diasporic films. The two independently-funded directorial debuts premiered at Sundance, and received a flurry of media attention and awards from organizations excited by the idea of an “Iranian” horror film. Despite film critics' insistence on comparing Amirpour's style to Jim Jarmusch and Quentin Tarantino, and Anvari's to Guillermo del Toro, film scholars have not treated this area of inquiry with the attention it deserves. Though existing scholarship has outlined the formal and thematic characteristics common to Iranian diasporic films, the horror genre represents new territory that begs investigation. Building on Hamid Naficy's foundational work in this area, I interrogate the ways in which Amirpour and Anvari re-imagine the Iranian cultural and historical landscape through a lens of terror and anxiety.

I argue that the horror genre affords diasporic filmmakers new modes of communication, primarily through the figure of a powerful chador-clad woman who harnesses violence to achieve her goals. In "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night", the figure is a young, skateboarding vampire who ventures into the night to kill men that abuse others. In "Under the Shadow", she is a haunting, faceless specter attempting to steal a woman's daughter because she is a "bad mother". These veiled figures, the Persian language dialogue, and the setting of the stories in Iran point to their "Iranian" character. However, the films were made outside of Iran by children of Iranians living in the diaspora. Despite these complicating factors, film critics, journalistic sources, and the production companies' own promotional material often label the films as strictly "Iranian". I argue that ignoring the films' diasporic origins reflects an attempt to capitalize on the powerful cultural capital the national category of "Iranian" boasts in the field of cinema. These case studies thus allow me to examine the ways in which a national category can function as an auteur. My project combines textual and discourse analysis in order to explore the implications of using a national industry as a categorization tool.