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 Ana Lily Amirpour

 By Lindsey Decker

 Ana Lily Amirpour, photo courtesy of Moritz Barcelona, license CC BY 2.0

Ana Lily Amirpour, photo courtesy of Moritz Barcelona, license CC BY 2.0

Filmmaker Ana Lily Amirpour is perhaps best known for her debut feature, the confident and stylish vampire film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014). Born in England in 1976 to Iranian parents, Amirpour primarily grew up in the United States, imbibing 1980s American pop culture and fusing it into her creative DNA. She often speaks of the cultural hybridity of not only her own national identity but also her films, which take heavy influence from both Iranian and American culture and art. [1] Hybridity is key to seemingly everything in her career, from the way that she mixes genres to the way that drug use serves to blur the boundaries of reality in her feature films.

Amirpour has been getting buzz since her script for The Stones won the 2007 BlueCat Screenplay Competition. The Stones is a teen ensemble drama set in contemporary Iran that follows a gay Iranian-American teen whose mother sends him back to Iran to “cure” his homosexuality, and a young working-class Iranian girl who gets romantically involved with a wealthy boy. The screenplay would go on to open many doors for Amirpour; with it, and the short film Ketab (2010) she developed from a section of the script, she participated in the Tribeca Film Festival All Access program, Fast Track at the Los Angeles Film Festival, and the Sundance Screenwriters Lab, as well as winning the 2009 Adrienne Shelly Fellowship in Screenwriting.

Indeed, the festival circuit has swooned over the majority of Amirpour’s oeuvre. Her first film, the short Six and a Half (2009), a whimsical childhood revenge fantasy, made its North American premiere at the Slamdance Film Festival and went on to win the Golden Ace Award at the Las Vegas International Film Festival. True Love (2010), which follows the romantic adventures of a young man at a restaurant, won the Milano International Film Festival’s Audience Award for Best International Short. The short version of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2011) won the Best Short Film Award at the Noor Iranian Film Festival, while her part live-action, part animated short A Little Suicide (2012), which follows a suicidal cockroach, was nominated for Best International Short Film at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. For each of these projects, Amirpour often took on multiple roles behind and in front of the camera, working at various points as director, actor, screenwriter, editor, cinematographer, and animator.

 Cropped still from  A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night . Sheila Vand as The Girl. Courtesy of Kino Lorber's press kit for the film.

Cropped still from A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. Sheila Vand as The Girl. Courtesy of Kino Lorber's press kit for the film.

While The Stones languished in development limbo, Amirpour continued to make films. In fact, as she told Raidió Teilifís Éireann (RTÉ), it was on the set of Ketab that she was inspired to make A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. On impulse, she donned a chador, a costume for one of the extras. Immediately, she says, "I felt like a bat and it made me want to skateboard. It was supernatural. [...] After putting it on, looking in the mirror I immediately thought I looked like an Iranian vampire." [2] This realization lead to a short and then eventually the full-length feature.

Often referred to as an Iranian vampire spaghetti Western, Girl follows a burgeoning love story between a young "Persian James Dean" and a vampire who, among other marks of unruliness, uses a chandor as a cape while she stalk her prey (bad men) in the fictional Bad City, Iran. [3] Produced through Amirpour's Say Ahh... Productions, the film's blend of art cinema aesthetics, horror gore, and dread helped to mark her internationally as an up-and-coming art horror director. The film was nominated for 30 different awards at various festivals and by various critics' associations. These honors included nominations for Best First Feature at the Film Independent Spirit Awards, Best Film at the London Film Festival, and Audience Award for Best of Next! at the Sundance Film Festival.

After the critical praise for A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Amirpour’s second feature film, The Bad Batch (2016), carried heavy expectations, particularly from feminist critics who hailed Amirpour as part of the new generation of feminist women filmmakers after Girl debuted. (This despite the fact that Amirpour has consistently maintained that while the film is up for interpretation, she did not make an overtly feminist film.) The Bad Batch explores a young woman’s journey through a near-future (or present day) wasteland filled with people cast out from mainstream society, where cannibalism is common and compassion is not. However, despite being nominated for a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, winning the Special Jury Prize there, and having a big-name cast (Jason Momoa, Keanu Reeves, Jim Carrey, and Giovanni Ribisi), The Bad Batch was broadly received as a disappointment. With a bigger budget and additional visibility, the lush visual style and dreamy narrative meandering The Bad Batch shares with Girl mostly fell flat for critics and audiences. As Farihah Zaman put it, writing for Film Comment: “There is atmosphere, there is beauty, but to what end?” [4]

 Poster for  The Bad Batch . Courtesy of NEON's press kit for the film.

Poster for The Bad Batch. Courtesy of NEON's press kit for the film.

Rather than seeing The Bad Batch as a failed follow-up, though, I would argue that Amirpour finally came into her own politically with this extremely trippy cannibal horror film. Classic films like The Hills Have Eyes (Wes Craven, 1977) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974) make the cannibal into a figure of underclass or working-class terror for the suburban middle class protagonists (and audience). Amirpour’s film instead presents a critique of the systems that pit economically and socially marginalized people against one another in a man-eat-man system. This manifests in part because of the way The Bad Batch refuses to answer the questions it poses and in part because the film prevents viewers from pegging a character as entirely bad or good.

*Spoiler warning*: the following paragraph contains spoilers, and readers may wish to skip to the next paragraph if they have not seen the film. When cannibals kidnap Arlen (played by Suki Waterhouse) and eat her leg and arm toward the beginning of the film, they are not depicted as evil but as desperate, hungry people. Arlen’s actions are sympathetic in a fairly straightforward way when she murders one of her kidnappers to escape further loss of limb, or life, but her subsequent murder of Maria (played by Yolonda Ross) in front of her daughter compromises that sympathy. Maria, after all, was simply scavenging; Arlen kills her because Maria is using a golf cart that appears similar to the one used by Arlen’s kidnappers, but nothing in the narrative tells us how Maria came to have that cart. Arlen’s kidnapping of Honey (played by Jayda Fink), Maria and the Miami Man’s daughter, could be read as honorable if she were planning to give the child a better life than she could have with cannibals. Instead, Arlen loses Honey after indulging in LSD at a rave held in the settlement Comfort. The Miami Man (played by Jason Momoa) is also a hard character to pin down; he is a cannibal and kidnaps Arlen as leverage to rescue Honey. As an undocumented Cuban immigrant, he only ended up in this wasteland because of government policies that see only some kinds of immigration and immigrants acceptable.

 Still from  The Bad Batch . Jason Momoa as Miami Man and Suki Waterhouse as Arlen. Courtesy of NEON's press kit for the film.

Still from The Bad Batch. Jason Momoa as Miami Man and Suki Waterhouse as Arlen. Courtesy of NEON's press kit for the film.

The film is thus filled with complications that push against a clear good/bad dichotomy. These flips push us to sympathize with all of the characters (with the notable exception of the fertility cult drug-pusher The Dream, played by Keanu Reeves). Press around the film sees Amirpour at odds with her interviewers, who attempt to brush off the full force of the film’s political critique by calling it post-apocalyptic and futuristic. Instead, Amirpour grounds her film in the present; as she said to the LA Times, “I get confused when people say [The Bad Batch] is post-apocalyptic, because […] I see homeless people. Every single person that lives on the street, I cannot not see them. But I feel that people habitually don't see them.” [5] Indeed, to prepare for the film, Amirpour spent time on LA’s Skid Row, as well as the Slab City community in the Salton Sea, an off-the-grid community in California with a shifting population of between 10,000 to 20,000 people.

With The Bad Batch, Amirpour makes the political personal for her characters, but the film also operates as a broader critique of the cultural and socioeconomic systems that pit people against one another and enable those in power to denigrate them as folk devils. As she says, “We’re all undesirable in some way. You can look at some […] drug addict here or some illegal immigrant there and how they keep coming into our country and taking jobs. But that’s not how they are as people. That’s how they’re labeled by those in power in order to easily classify them and then deal with them in a specific way. But they’re everywhere in every city, and they need to live.” [6] This critique becomes particularly poignant when viewed in the film’s historical context of production and exhibition around the pivot point of the 2016 US election and its attendant rise of xenophobia and class tensions.

 Amirpour on the set of  The Bad Batch . Courtesy of NEON's press kit for the film.

Amirpour on the set of The Bad Batch. Courtesy of NEON's press kit for the film.

And yet, Amirpour soon found herself in the middle of a racially-charged controversy. During a post-screening Q&A for The Bad Batch, Bianca Xinuse, a black illustrator from Chicago, asked Amirpour why the film’s most gratuitous violence is reserved for Maria, the film’s sole black woman, and why Arlen, the white perpetrator of that violence, is allowed to take Maria’s place in the Miami Man and Honey’s lives. At first unable to hear the question (she is partially deaf), Amirpour eventually responded characteristically: “Just because I give you something to look at doesn’t mean I’m telling you what to see.” Amirpour felt attacked, as did Xinuse. This incident lead to further critiques of her casting of Jason Momoa, who is of Hawaiian descent, as a Latinx character, as well as his poorly-done accent. Online backlash heated up after Twitter users found a photo of Amirpour, who may or may not have been in blackface, dressed as the rapper Lil Wayne for Halloween. There were also some members of the disabled community who felt Amirpour was using her partial deafness as a way to evade questions about her own potential biases. [7]

In part, it seems that Amirpour was finally able to own the politics of her film with The Bad Batch because those politics are based on a broader feeling of not belonging, of being an outsider, rather than being attached to any particular marginalized identity group. In interview after interview, Amirpour seems to reflexively recoil from even the mention of feminism, gender, or race. Her reaction is perhaps best exemplified in her now infamous Gawker interview; when asked if she personally found A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night to be feminist, she responded, “Personally, I find that these philosophies are the disease for which they claim to be the cure.” [8]

And yet, all of Amirpour’s feature films, and many of her shorts, have followed complex women protagonists as they grapple with their status as outsiders. This will continue with her next project, Blood Moon, which has been described as a genre- and mind-bending fantasy-adventure that follows a mysterious girl with disturbing abilities who has to learn how to fit into the hedonistic underworld society in New Orleans. [9] It remains to be seen if Amirpour will continue to be squeamish on the subject of gender, whether with regard to her films or her experience as a woman director. However, it is likely that critics, scholars, and fans of her films will continue to read against the grain of Amirpour’s stated intent, as her films present unique, often psychedelic visions of gendered marginalization and struggle.

Notes

1. Kaleem Aftab, “Ana Lily Amirpour has created a completely new film genre – the Iranian Vampire Western,” The Independent Online, 20 May 2015.

2. “Q&A with director/screenwriter Ana Lily Amirpour,” Raidió Teilifís Éireann Online, 21 May 2015.

3. “It’s supposed to be fun; Ana Lily Amirpour brings pulp to Persia,What’s New BlueCat? The Official Newsletter of the BlueCat Screenplay Competition, 25 July 2012.

4. Farihah Zaman, “Review: The Bad Batch,” Film Comment, May/June 2017.

5. Jen Yamato, “Ana Lily Amirpour shoots from the gut with dystopian cannibal love story The Bad Batch,” LA Times Online, 25 June 2017.

6. Jacob Knight, “Ana Lily Amirpour talks The Bad Batch and why she kinda hated Fury Road,Birth.Movies.Death Online, 19 June 2017.

7. Eric Kohn, “Ana Lily Amirpour responds to racism charges — but won’t apologize for making you uncomfortable,” IndieWire, 23 June 2017.

8. Rich Juziak, “The Iranian vampire tale of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night,” Gawker Online, 21 November 2014.

9. Mike Fleming Jr., “Ana Lily Amirpour brings new film Blood Moon to Cannes,” Deadline, 4 May 2018.


Dr. Lindsey Decker is a Master Lecturer in film studies in the Department of Film & Television at Boston University. Her research primarily focuses on the relationship between horror and film culture. She tweets about horror and feminism, among other things, at @elledee_elledee.


Additional Resources on Ana Lily Amirpour

Bibliography of Further Reading

Nicholson, Amy. "Meet the Woman Behind the Year's Best Iranian Vampire Western," Rolling Stone, 19 November 2014.

Shadee Abdi and Bernadette Maria Calafell, “Queer utopias and a (Feminist) Iranian vampire: a critical analysis of resistive monstrosity in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night,” Critical Studies in Media Communication, vol. 34, no. 4 (2017): 358-370.

Filmography

Legion (television series), “Chapter 10,” season 2, episode 2, 10 April 2018, director

Yo! My Saint (short film), 2018, director, writer

Breakthrough (documentary television series), “Curing Cancer,” season 2, episode 3, 2017, director

The Bad Batch, 2016, director, writer

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, 2014, director, writer, editor, actress

The Garlock Incident (dir. Evan Cholfin), 2012, writer, actress

A Little Suicide (short film), 2011, director, writer, animator, actress

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (short film), 2011, director, writer

Pashmaloo (short film), 2010, director, writer, editor

Ana Lily Amirpour Likes This (documentary short), 2010, director, editor, producer, cinematographer

Ketab (short film), 2010, director, writer, editor

True Love (short film), 2009, director, writer

You (short film / music video), 2009, director, writer, editor, producer

Six and a Half (short film), 2009, director, writer

Frequent Collaborators

Sheila Vand (actress in Ketab, Pashmaloo, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night [feature], and Breakthrough)

Marshall Manesh (actor in Ketab, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night [short], and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night [feature])

Lyle Vincent (cinematographer on A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night [feature] and The Bad Batch)

Topher Osborn (cinematography on Six and a Half, True Love, and Ketab)

Scott Dropkin (Steadicam on A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night [feature] and The Bad Batch)

Alex O’Flinn (editor on A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night [feature] and The Bad Batch)

Brian Carmody (music on Six and a Half, True Love, and A Little Suicide; sound mixer on Ketab)

Vicki Vandegrift (foley artist on A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night [feature] and The Bad Batch)

Natalie O’Brien (costume design on A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night [feature] and The Bad Batch)

Sina Sayyah (producer on Pashmaloo, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night [short], A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night [feature], and The Bad Batch)

Justin Begnaud (producer on Pashmaloo, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night [short], and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night [feature])

Shahrzad Davani (producer on A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night [feature] and The Bad Batch)


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