Ava is Not So Delicate
With eight nominations at the Canadian Screen Awards and a selection in the Canada’s Top Ten Film Festival, director Sadaf Foroughi talks about the making of her breakout film
The Canadian Screen Award nominations were announced this week, and Sadaf Foroughi’s Ava is the film to beat. With eight nominations (including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, and Best Original Screenplay), the Iranian-Canadian’s filmmaker’s debut feature — which made its world premiere and won the Discovery Award at TIFF ’17 and is now a selection in the Canada’s Top Ten Film Festival — demonstrates a powerful voice and keen cinematic eye across two continents.
Filmed in Tehran, and funded by a collection of grants from the Canada Council for the Arts, the Quebec Council for the Arts, and the Doha Film Institute, Ava follows its teenaged protagonist (Mahour Jabbari) through a period of intense speculation and personal intrusion. Beginning the film as a normal teenage girl who aspires to be a professional violinist (she also has a crush on her musical accompanist, Nima), as soon as a teenage girl in their community gets pregnant, Ava’s mother and schoolteachers begin to regulate her activities, intruding on all aspects of her life. With her every movement now scrutinized, Ava’s anxiety skyrockets, especially after her mother takes her to a OBGYN to make sure she’s still a virgin.
Foroughi’s assured direction shows her character’s entrapment in beautifully composed wide shots, emphasizing Ava’s subjectivity through reflections in mirrors and windows. The influence of both Iranian cinema (especially her Kiarostami-like aptitude for long takes and scenes filmed in cars) and French New Wave coming-of-age films is evident throughout the film.
TIFF Long Take co-host Rob Kraszewski spoke to Foroughi last September during the Festival about how her background in painting, dance, and music influenced the film’s poetic style, about filming amid Iran’s patriarchal and restrictive society, and why Ava (filmed in Tehran, with dialogue entirely in Farsi) is one of the most notable Canadian films of the year.
Growing up in Iran, what experiences informed your filmmaking and storytelling style?
Well, I was born in Iran and I grew up in a very traditional society. I'm very influenced by the taboos that have been engraved in my mind and the function of the small society called "home." Ava was created from all of these experiences.
Filmmaking for me is a kind of communication. I've tried to speak many different languages and I love to communicate with people from other countries. I try to find my own aesthetic, my own picture of language to communicate with an audience.
What were the early challenges in your career?
It's always difficult to make the first feature. I started to write this script and it took a little bit of time. I think it's important to work [really hard] on your first film because it's a launching pad. I met a lot of good producers who gave me their feedback, which helped me a lot, although their [comments] were negative. It helped me to evolve, explore, and even question myself about the story, even my career. I became stronger and I'm happy for that, but it was hard. Finally, I chose to produce the film myself, along with my friend Kiarash Anvari, with funding from the Canada Council for the Arts, Quebec Council for the Arts, and the Doha Film Institute.
Did you make any changes to the way you were pitching the film when you got that feedback from potential producers? Or did you say, "No, this is the film, this is my vision, and this is how we're doing it"?
No, I changed it…. It was the little advice like, "Maybe we have to see more of Ava's friends." While I didn't want to have the influence of other ideas, I did want to structure [the script] correctly. In terms of the production, I didn't have much money and only 18 days of shooting, so I [had to ] design everything. There was no time to "take it and retake it." I worked a lot with my actresses two months before the shooting and then it was like a war! (Laughs)
You grew up in Iran, went to school in France, and now you live in Montreal. How do you think these cross-cultural experiences have affected your practice as a filmmaker?
I have a lot of baggage from the Iranian traditions [I grew up with], as well as the love and support of my family. I went to university in France, so I had the chance to watch films from all over the world, including French cinema. Now my life in Montreal [working on films] is calm, beautiful, and wonderful.
Are there specific French directors who have inspired you?
I’d say "all," but specifically Maurice Pialat. I have a little reference in my film where the last music that I use is from his film À nos amours. (Editor's note: À nos amours screens at TIFF Bell Lightbox January 27.) There’s Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, bien sûr.
How did you work with a limited budget to make a film of immense beauty?
Thanks, I'm happy to hear that. I designed all my shots; I knew exactly what I wanted in terms of ambience and aesthetic. Everything was ready before I started to find the crew, and once I did it was easy to communicate because they knew exactly what I wanted. I'm very influenced by painting, so the paintings of Edvard Munch, Gerhard Richter [were important to me]. I'm also very influenced by dance, so the work of Pina Bausch helped me understand how I wanted the camera to move and the actors to feel on screen.
You've said the film is written and directed as a variation of music. What do you mean?
It’s when a composer takes a musical theme and repeats it in an altered form that keeps evolving. In a script, you have a theme you explore in every scene, so I like to think of Ava as a central question that keeps repeating in a different form.
You've said that the film has a "cinematic aesthetic of a country in which there are restrictions on portraying women." There's a push and pull where you show the inner lives of these women in a very beautiful, intimate way. It seems almost dangerous, almost transgressive.
In Ava, the camera is a voyeur — you know, like Peeping Tom — trying to record the secrets of a family. I wanted to keep it at a distance and use long takes to show the pressure and time in its eternal process. I wanted to use an impressionistic approach to show this distance and alienation between the audience and the story. It's a very personal story; I can see myself through Ava. While it is not an autobiographical story, it is a love letter of the years I missed during my adolescence.
What makes your film "Canadian"?
That’s a very good question. I’ve lived in Canada since 2009; Montreal is my home. I wrote the script here, the Canada Council helped me a lot, as did the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec. That made it possible for me to work on my story and develop the idea as I had this exchange with my other colleagues in Montreal and Toronto. I don’t think we're living in a world where I can say that I'm just Iranian or Canadian; the story in Ava is Iranian, but we're all related.
As an Iranian female filmmaker making a film about gender discrimination, what were the challenges of shooting your first feature in Iran?
It was more difficult for me as a woman to get permission to shoot the film in Iran, as well as working in a patriarchal society... On set, [I found I had to be] very strict and direct with people — a little bit cruel, sometimes. Otherwise, you're immediately seen as a delicate woman.
It made me question myself: am I going to continue? And of course I will, but how? Right now I’m working on my second feature because I know we have to share our stories. Women have lots of things to say.
What do you think are the most dangerous misconceptions about female directors?
I think we have to change this idea of military working…. Film is an industry, but it's a form of art. We have to be careful, we have to care about each other. When I said I was very strict, I didn’t mean I was a general. I was strict with people because they didn’t want to listen to me as a woman. It was hard for them; they're very experienced and they were men. We are not king of the kings when we are the director. It's more like a mother taking care of their family. I think of filmmaking as kind of meditation. If we can see the world of cinema like this, maybe things can change.
Finally, if you were going to give advice to filmmakers who want to tell their stories, what would you say?
To start analyzing themselves and to be honest with themselves. [Filmmakers need to dig] into their souls to find a personal story, because when it's coming from the heart, it speaks to others. The most important thing is to communicate with the audience. We are making the films for other people, so while telling your personal story, try to make little changes if you can to open up a debate.