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TIFF ’21 Review: ‘Zalava’ examines superstition and the consequences of challenging it

In ‘Zalava’, a military officer’s skepticism of the paranormal and demonic possession causes chaos in a small, remote village that relies on exorcism for its success.

A scene from 'Zalava'
A scene from 'Zalava' courtesy of TIFF
A scene from 'Zalava' courtesy of TIFF

In ‘Zalava’, a military officer’s skepticism of the paranormal and demonic possession causes chaos in a small, remote village that relies on exorcism for its success.

Fear is a powerful motivator as it can influence people’s decisions, causing them to behave in ways otherwise uncharacteristic. When paired with a threat to one’s survival or basic well-being, it can make someone do horrible things and potentially bring harm to others. Fear is also a means of control, as it can be used to manipulate people into doing something that won’t necessarily benefit them, but seems necessary to avoid something worse. In Zalava, a Kurdistan village’s entire history is built around the belief that evil spirits can possess people and terrorize the community if not exorcised.

Masoud (Navid Pourfaraj), a Gendarmerie sergeant stationed near Zalava, is tired of the villagers’ superstitious beliefs dictating how they’re governed. He’s been witness to many injuries happening as a result of their primeval methods and is determined to put a stop to it by confiscating their guns. Unfortunately, a tragedy occurs anyway and he’s held directly accountable even though the alternative was not much better. Certain an evil spirit has taken up residence in the village, they call a local exorcist to cleanse their home and restore order. However, upon “capturing” the demon, Masoud arrests the shaman and accuses him of fraud. What follows is a series of events that call into question everyone’s beliefs.

Many cultures believe in the existence of spirits, good and evil. However, in the case of Zalava, their superstitions are choking their daily lives. If someone behaves strangely — particularly someone’s offspring — they must be possessed. If something goes wrong with the livestock, it must be the devil’s work. They blame everything on some evil entity, which results in people being needlessly shot or stabbed more frequently than is reasonable. A government-sanctioned doctor is stationed in the village, but even she doesn’t try to correct them with science as she contends a few minor injuries are still better than them killing each other.

The narrative doesn’t actually assert whether demons and exorcisms are real or not, because that is not the crux of the story. There’s the conviction of the villagers that things improve after an exorcism and there’s the possibility the ghost stories are a ruse by a corporation that wants to purchase the land. What it’s really examining is how these superstitions can cause people to act and turn on each other. Some people act rationally, trying to negotiate to appease both sides, while others are terrified and allow that panic to drive their choices. The exorcist insists the proper rituals must be followed to keep the evil contained and the villagers whole-heartedly trust his process, in spite of having no evidence to prove his success one way or another — he may have eradicated a demon or it’s the placebo effect and the villagers see what they want. However, everything comes to a boil in the last act as Masoud becomes unsure of his position on the matter and the villagers grow desperate for a solution.

There are some excellent, atmospheric scenes in which the tension is built with the camerawork and editing, creating a crescendo that climaxes in a moment of shock — though not necessarily the kind audiences hope for or expect as breaking the suspense isn’t always a satisfying experience.

Zalava is screening as part of the Midnight Madness programme at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Read other reviews from the festival.

Director: Arsalan Amiri
Starring: Navid Pourfaraj, Pouria Rahimi Sam and Hoda Zeinolabedin

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Sarah Gopaul is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for film news, a member of the Online Film Critics Society and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer-approved critic.

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