NEITHER HEAVEN NOR EARTH (Clément Cogitore, France/Belgium, 2015)
On the surface, this strange tale set in the Afghan Valley of Wakham plays out like an unpredictable rapprochement between French international peacekeepers and the Taliban, but in fact the film is a parable based on the 18th sura of the Koran, the Sura of the Cave.
The Sura of the Cave gets its name from a pre-Islamic account of the Seven Sleepers of Ephasus, early Christians who took refuge in a cave to escape persecution. There they slept for hundreds of years until the persecution passed and they were free to worship in safety. The Koran uses the Sleepers of Ephasus as a wonderful sign of God’s truth and a way to test between believers and nonbelievers.
In the film, French soldiers mysteriously disappear. The French suspect the Taliban of kidnapping them—until the Taliban reveal that a number of their men have disappeared as well. The local villagers are forced to explain that the valley the interlopers are occupying is Allah’s country and that whoever sleeps there is lost, but neither the French nor the Taliban listen. (As a side note, the village spokesman is named Malik, the surname of Muhammad Farooq-i-Azam Malik, who translated the Koran into contemporary American English and whose translations are used here.)
Sura 18:104 characterizes unbelievers (or “losers” in most translations) as “Those whose all efforts in this worldly life had gone astray from the Right Way, but all along were under the delusion that they were doing good deeds”—a description that applies to both the French and the Taliban, each of whom brutalizes the local population in its own particular way. The sura also warns unbelievers of their fate: “We will set the mountains in motion and you will see the earth as a barren waste; We shall assemble mankind all together, leaving not even a single soul behind” (18:47). In one of the best scenes of the film, this creepy kind of anti-rapture is foretold in detail by a terrified French soldier, who seems to sense what is about to befall them all.
This reading of the film is not conjecture; the local Afghans mention the Sura of the Cave several times throughout the movie. What is conjecture is this interpretation: The locals are those who see correctly—all others, stay away, at your own peril. The French commander, who is the film’s staunchest atheist, seems to glean this in one brilliantly glorious scene when he inadvertently encounters a local prayer meeting. It is as if, in one blinding moment of insight, he is able to glimpse the truth and prepare himself for his inevitable demise. In this moment, the film becomes a warning sign to us all.
UNDER THE SHADOW (Babak Anvari, UK/Jordan/Qatar)
Director Babak Anvari brilliantly portrays the terrifying desolation of a woman betrayed by her husband, her daughter, and her country. The emotional effect of the film is deep because Anvari has chosen a surprising mode to convey her existential isolation: a supernatural horror film.
Eight years into the Iran-Iraq war and nine years into the Islamic Republic, Shideh and her husband live with their daughter, Dorsa, in Teheran. Shideh has just been denied permission to continue her university studies, but her husband assures her it’s for the best; she didn’t really want to be a doctor anyway, did she? When Baghdad threatens to step up its ballistic missile attacks on Teheran, he’s sent away to a dangerous posting on the front lines with the warning that she should take Dorsa to his parents’ place, far away from the impending danger.
She doesn’t, of course, and the winds of war blow in more than ballistic missiles: they bring malevolent djinn, who possess Dorsa’s mind and, through her, Shideh’s grip on reality. To say that the film is scary is a gross understatement: it’s terrifying. Babak Anvari didn’t just understand the political possibilities inherent in the medium of a horror film—he really gets how to use the genre to its fullest, scariest extent in order to reveal the horrors of a state gone awry.