Filmmaker Sadaf Foroughi talks about ‘Ava’

Iranian-Canadian filmmaker Sadaf Foroughi has been racking up numerous well deserved accolades for her debut feature, the Tehran set family drama Ava (opening in Toronto at TIFF Bell Lightbox this weekend). In the past several months, the film premiered to raves at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it would pick up the FIPRESCI award from a jury of the international press for the best feature in the festival’s Discovery category. Later in the year, Foroughi’s film would be named to TIFF’s Canada’s Top Ten, and just recently Ava was nominated for eight Canadian Screen Awards, including Best Picture.

Every ounce of the acclaim is well deserved, as Foroughi’s tale of a titular young woman (played exceptionally by Mahour Jabbari) is a rarity in modern cinema: an unflinching look into what it’s like to be a teenager in modern Iran. Shooting in and around Tehran on a moderate budget, Montreal based filmmaker Foroughi combined elements of her own life growing up with modern concerns.

In Foroughi’s film, seventeen year old high school student Ava has developed a crush on a boy. Like most girls her age, she speaks frankly with her best friends about the boys they like, and openly schemes with friends to come up with alibis to meet as secretly as possible, away from the prying eyes of pious school instructors and nosy, overbearing parents. Already in the process of being pushed away from her preferred course of musical studies by her hard-line, realist mother (Bahar Noohian), Ava sees her flirtation as a way to escape her domestic troubles and her parents’ gradually disintegrating marriage. When Ava’s generally low-key hangouts are discovered, the young woman’s mother goes into a near frenzy in a bid to save the family reputation. After bringing Ava to a doctor to confirm that the young woman is still a virgin, the relationship between mother and daughter strains to a breaking point (uncovering familial secrets along the way), and rumours about Ava’s behaviour begin to swirl around her school. Branded as immoral and finding that her friends are very loose lipped and prone to snitching on the behaviours of others, Ava is forced into a desperate situation where she’ll either be forced to leave school or become another informant calling out the “immoral” acts of others.

Last week, we caught up with Sadaf Foroughi in downtown Toronto at the CBC building to talk about how the film has been perceived in Iran and abroad, making an intimate family drama with long takes and a limited budget, and why films like Ava are invaluable towards painting a different picture of modern day Iran.

I think for a lot of Western audiences, cinema coming out of Iran is one of the only ways to witness firsthand the sense of modernity that exists within this country that’s always depicted in the wetern media as being somewhat stereotypically archaic. One of the things that your film does and other films coming out of Iran lately have been able to show is this often unseen side of the country. What’s it like to be a part of this cinematic culture that shines an accurate, critical, and fair light on what modern day Iran is really like?

Sadaf Foroughi

Sadaf Foroughi: You said that quite beautifully. I think the problem is that many of the Iranian people feel like they don’t have much of a voice, both those in the country and those living abroad. There’s really only the government that has a voice, and the media has a voice, and that’s about it. We can’t see what’s happening in Iran with any regularity. I think artists and filmmakers from Iranian backgrounds should make films about Iran to show that we have the same problems as people living in the rest of the world, but to also showcase just how different our background is. We’re not bad. We have adolescents that are just like other adolescents. We have mothers like any other mothers. These kinds of stories help us in countries like Canada and the United States that are very far away from Iran to help identify with them, and maybe that will help people to reconsider how they think about Iran and Iranian people.

When you’ve been showing this film around during the past year, has anyone come up to you or asked you in a Q&A if the film actually takes place in Iran? While the culture is certainly prevalent, the overlying story, struggles, and some of the locations look like they could be anywhere in the world, and I’m sure that someone has probably expressed some kind of confusion.

Sadaf Foroughi: (laughs) I’ve definitely had those questions. It was shot in Iran and it takes place in Iran, but I’m actually really happy when people seem to be confused by that. To hear that is to understand that the message you’re trying to get across is universal.

It’s coming from a specific place of origin and from problems that I might have experienced myself. It’s a dialogue that can be shared with other people. I’m so happy to hear that because it means that it works. It’s the story of a family, so everyone else in the world will likely have the same difficulties, either as adults or adolescents.

Especially in these difficult times, I think that’s great, because we need to start thinking about the way we treat adolescents. I’m very interested in that and the place of a woman’s role in such a society. At first she’s a woman, but then suddenly when she has a child, she’s just seen as a mother, especially in Iranian society where women are always seen as being the secondary gender. But a lot of these feelings are universal, and maybe it’s because these issues like gender discrimination are still there. I hope that little by little things change everywhere, but it’s good to see how universally the story of this family has been received.

The problems faced by this family are certainly universal, and I think part of those problems tap into how a lot of problems faced by families pertain to how they’re perceived by a community at large, something which is amplified in Iranian culture because of the constantly shifting scale of social and political permissiveness within the country, which can lead to these cycles of shame that are brought upon the family. What was it like – as someone who has spent time in both Iran and Canada – to portray the seemingly warring states of social permissiveness?

Sadaf Foroughi: Actually, my idea was to never reduce people to their social functions, but to always focus on their existence. Honestly, I didn’t think I wanted to write and direct a film with such a universal message, but more so I didn’t want to make a film that was political or ideological because I wanted these people to come across as actual people. I wanted it to be like the news. You’re right with what you’re saying, but I wanted to go deeper than that with the characters in this situation. I wanted to see how these people would react. I think what you’re saying just speaks to how universal the film is.

A lot of Ava’s problems are very modern. As an adult, were there ever any fears in writing a film based around a modern day teenager?

Sadaf Foroughi: I definitely did some research, of course, but basically I always start with my own story and a little bit of brainstorming. Little by little I structure the story, adding the drums and other instruments along the way. I went to Iran and travelled a lot and talked with as many young people as I could, and from their stories, I refined my own.

When it came to the casting, did your young actors bring anything from their experiences to the film?

Sadaf Foroughi: Actually, the final film is very close to the final draft of the script, mostly because we didn’t have a lot of money. (laughs) We did lots of rehearsal, though. We had 45 total days of rehearsal, and from that we made lots of minor changes in the dialogues, but I wanted to stick as true as we could to the script.

But they still brought a lot to their roles in terms of the emotion. [Mahour] was exceptional, and this was the first time she ever acted. I worked a lot with her because of that, but she always knew what her problems were, who the character was, and how to work on her performance. She was always very aware of what we needed to work on, and she understood the script so well that working together was so easy. She also made herself constantly available.

The process of rehearsal between Ava, the mother, and her father was mostly based around playing. We played a lot together instead of repeating the dialogue over and over again. At the end of each rehearsal, we would then re-enact certain scenes, but most of what we did was making sure they all got to know each other well enough.

It was also done this way partly because we didn’t have a lot of money, so I didn’t want to have a lot of cuts and extra shots, so we had a lot of long takes. But I also thought that the best way to understand the many layers of the situation was to make the viewer spend a lot of time with them. A big part of the story is how school can turn these young women into snitches, so to say, and in that respect I wanted the viewer to inhabit the role of someone who’s always watching and listening intently. It works between them because we rehearsed them as long takes, and long takes show that there’s more pressure. For the audience, during a long take you can feel pressure building throughout it, and for the actors it’s a lot to memorize and remember, but we all felt like we made the right choices and decisions.

That pressure was always designed to be in the film on a visual level. Ava’s backback and her mother’s headscarf are the same colour, which is red, and red can mean a lot of things, but one of the things it’s symbolic of is pressure, and we can literally see Ava carry around her mother’s pressure even when the mother isn’t around. That was something we talked a lot about during pre-production, was creating pressure.

Have people been surprised after watching the film that the father is the more supportive and empathetic of Ava’s parents considering the patriarchal nature of much of Iranian culture?

Sadaf Foroughi: Yeah, and I definitely get questioned about that a lot. Iran is definitely a patriarchal society, but as we talked about earlier in our conversation, it’s really based more on stereotypes. My father was a lot more like Ava’s father, and I’m sure lots of men in Iran are unhappy with gender inequality and discrimination. I didn’t want to have the same stereotype as we always have from Iran.

What’s it like making a film with subject matter like we see in Ava – which speaks at great length about potentially taboo subjects like teenage sexuality, religion, and self harm – in a country where talking about such subjects could no longer be permissible depending on whatever person in a position of power that you talk to?

Sadaf Foroughi: It was certainly a long and difficult process to make a film like this in Iran. As you said, what’s permissible to talk about in Iranian cinema can change from day to day. One day you give the script to someone and they say, “Oh, we really like you very much. You can do it.” Tomorrow you can go back to that same person, and they’ll say, “You know what? I really liked it and I want you to make the film, but this other guy won’t let me help you make it. I guess that you should change the subject of the film.” And no one in Iran has seen the film yet, but I certainly never want to cross the red line of the Iranian government. I respect their lines very much, but at the same time, I want to talk about my life, and I feel like I have the right to talk about it as a woman. I don’t know how they’ll react, but I guess we’ll see. Normally in Iran, we have to ask for permission to have a screening. I still have to do that, and I hope it goes well.

You never know from day to day, and making a film like this in Iran is such an up and down experience. One day you’re happy, the other you’re crushingly disappointed. I was always living in that situation, but what got me through was remembering that it’s always important to make these kinds of films. It’s worth all the hard work.

Hopefully the work put into the film can help to change things, but unfortunately, I don’t think so. Maybe I’m just a pessimist, but the changes have to start in smaller societies and especially within the home. Maybe if we try to change things at home, it will reflect on society, but at the moment the power in place is very powerful.

Andrew Parker
Andrew Parker fell in love with film growing up across the street from a movie theatre. He began writing professionally about film at the age of fourteen, and has been following his passions ever since. His writing has been showcased at various online outlets, as well as in The Globe and Mail, BeatRoute, and NOW Magazine. If he's not watching something or reading something, he's probably sleeping.