Iranian-American director Ana Lily Amirpour once said she conceived the idea for her debut film, the vampire thriller “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night,” while skateboarding down West Coast streets one night. As her black chador whipped behind her like the wings of a bat, Amirpour had a vision of heroine: A young Iranian girl who skateboarded around the streets of the fictional Bad Town, her chador rippling behind her like a cape.
Through combining traditional and modern elements of Iranian culture, as well as including both Western and Eastern influences, Amirpour creates a masterpiece that transcends all previously drawn boundaries. “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night” is a melting pot of influences, seen in the pairing of chador and fangs, seen in the Iranian tattoos on a crass pimp and, most importantly, seen in the soundtrack itself.
Contrasting the stark, noir aspect of the entirely black and white movie, the soundtrack of “A Girl” is an eclectic mash-up of Iranian songs, both old and new. Novel Iranian bands like Radio Tehran and Kiosk stand next to classic singers like Dariush; it’s a playlist that not only beautifully melds past and present, but also shapes the fictional world of “Bad Town.”
Much like its lack of color, “A Girl” lacks excessive dialogue, choosing instead to let its characters speak through the music that fills the negative space.
The main character, The Girl (played by Sheila Vand), is a pointed collection of contradictions: She is mostly silent, entrapped in shadows, yet the music that accompanies her pays homage to vibrant ‘80s synthpop. At the beginning of the film, The Girl dances alone in her room while Farah’s “Dancing Girls” plays; the song contains both Farsi and English lyrics, yet the techno wave of its background melody, along with the lone disco ball The Girl sways back and forth under, is reminiscent of American bands like a-ha and Blondie. Farah’s lyrics — “she’s just a normal girl / dancing to her favorite song” — create a sense of intimacy and vulnerability at odds with the fantastical vampire nightmare.
Even though the scene contains no dialogue, it speaks volumes about The Girl. Its contrasting components divulge a multi-dimensional character who moves past the flat trope of the stereotypical horror movie monster. Instead, we get a vampire who puts on makeup surrounded by muted fairy lights and saves abused prostitutes, then brutally murders an insolent pimp.
The soundtrack is not just a voice for the characters, but a shape for the movie as a whole. The largely instrumental band Ferderale makes several appearances throughout the film. The American-based ensemble is heavily influenced by soundtracks from the ‘60s & ‘70s era of Italian “Spaghetti Western” genres and, through this, allows “A Girl” to transcend cultural boundaries. Songs like “Sarcophagus” and “Black Sunday” feature dramatic orchestral declarations, bringing to mind the theatrical standoffs of iconic Old Westerns, while the underpinnings of folk melodies speak to conventional Iranian films. A spectral woman’s voice is often intermittently added as a glossy layer over the entire compilation; its echoing European opera sound traces the barren desert setting in fine lines of elegance.
Ferderale’s “Sisyphus” narrates a relatively simple, but quintessential, scene within the film: An unnamed character in drag dances with a balloon to music in a courtyard. The fringe on her button-down shirt and ostentatious silver buckle of her belt is at odds with the hijab on her head. It’s a strange juxtaposition replicated in the song as it weaves together musical elements from a variety of different eras.
The band allows the fictional Bad Town to exist within multiple spheres, blurring the lines between distinct movie genres and distinct cultures. It’s a quiet gesture, this remix of convention to include input from other cultures, but a powerful one. With “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night,” Amirpour constructs a story without limitations; instead, it masterfully traverses the rift between Eastern and Western ideals and finds a way to mend the disconnect.
What it means to me as an Iranian woman, more than just as a good horror movie, more than even a movie empowering Iranian women, is that it celebrates the power of opportunity. It’s doubtful Amirpour would have been able to create a movie of this magnitude if her family had remained in Iran, instead of taking the chance to immigrate to Europe and, later, to California.
Even though Iran’s culture is based predominantly around the arts — seen in the timeless impact of poets like Hafiz and Saadi — its current political climate has an iron grip around the advancement of artistic expression; it places tight restrictions over any creative production, not allowing for deviation from the established norm.
Many of the artists featured on this soundtrack, though Iranian-based, produce and perform their music outside of Iran; the radical socio-political commentary found in the lyrics of songs from bands like Kiosk or Radio Tehran is explicitly forbidden in Iran. Instead of remaining silent, they chose to immigrate to Europe, Canada and (mainly) the U.S, becoming the voice of a majority of Iran’s younger generation and permitting Iranian culture to continue to progress.
In light of President Donald Trump’s recent ban on travel on seven Muslim-majority countries (Iran being one of them), pieces of art like “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night” and its soundtrack need attention: The future of Iran lies within the ideas of its youth. When young Iranian citizens emigrate to search for new prospects, they are not fleeing from the historic culture of their homeland. Rather, their innovative ideas push the culture to evolve in order to accommodate new perspectives, redefining what it means to be Iranian.
With its multifaceted soundtrack, “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night” represents the endlessly creative potential of the Iranian youth.
It’s an ingenuity that I saw whenever I strolled the streets in Iran: Young artists with revolutionary ideas on the brink of looking to make a life for themselves, many of them exploring the option of moving to America. And even though the ethnocentrism in the continuing view of America as “the land of opportunity” is a problem in itself, it does not draw away from the fact that, for many bright students, closed borders means closed opportunities as well.