Shooting Ava Anyway
Director Sadaf Foroughi talks about facing gender discrimination and sexual harassment in Iran, all in pursuit of making her award-winning breakout film
Sadaf Foroughi’s debut feature Ava is one of the most decorated Canadian features of the year. Currently nominated for eight Canadian screen awards after winning the Discovery Award at TIFF ’17, the tense coming-of-age story depicts a 16-year-old girl in Tehran living under the intense scrutiny of her family and teachers. When a teenager in her community gets pregnant, life at home and at school become hell for Ava, who is now forbidden from practising violin, hanging out with her best friend (whose divorced mother Ava’s mother disapproves of), or spending time with her crush Yasi, who is also her musical accompanist. Foroughi films Ava’s psychological confinement in beautifully composed wide shots with an assured precision and poetic sensibility that recalls the traditions of Iranian cinema as well as her cinematic education in France.
Yet the process of making Ava was not easy for the filmmaker, who faced rejection from producers, a limited budget, and gender discrimination and sexual harassment in Iran, all in pursuit of making her first feature. Foroughi (who was born in Iran, studied film in France, and now lives in Montreal) produced the film herself with her friend Kiarash Anvari (also Ava’s editor) after several producers declined the project. Shot on a micro budget with grants from the Canada Council for the Arts, Doha Film Institute, and Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec, Foroughi then had to ask the Iranian government for permission to shoot in Tehran, which was denied. Luckily for all of us, she made Ava anyway. We spoke to the director when her film screened at the Canada’s Top Ten Film Festival about how she triumphed over gender discrimination and sexual harassment to make one of the most accomplished Canadian features of the year. Ava is now playing at TIFF Bell Lightbox.
Your depiction of Iranian teenage girls is highly realistic. How did you want to challenge the societal expectations of how women are viewed in Iran?
I felt very free during the writing of the script and the shooting because it was me alone working on this film. It was also very hard. Now that I am living in Canada, I have a privilege to talk freely about the taboos in Iranian society. I just wanted to reflect women’s lives in Iran because we’re still facing so much discrimination.
What were you like as a teenager?
I was Ava — I wanted to be myself, I wanted to have my own voice, I wanted to do things I couldn't. Of course, Ava is not a documentary. But at the same time, it's based on my own life. I wanted to go to cinema school, but my mom wouldn't let me.
Why didn't she want you to go?
My mother wasn't a strict person, but she had to follow a line that had been written by society. Concerning boyfriends, it was impossible. It wasn't only your parents, but your school system. Your friends would snitch on you.
The anxiety Ava feels and the way it manifests itself... is that how you felt all the time?
Growing up, you don't understand if you're anxious or not. But years after, you see how all this pressure affected you. Most of the time, I feel guilty for things I never did. It's this sense I inherited from Iranian society, and if you ask me why they wanted women to feel this way, I don't know. Maybe it was easier to control us, or they wanted to humiliate us, but that sense of guilt is very heavy. Every problem rested on the shoulders of this patriarchal society. What was good was that my mother and my grandma were very nice. Whenever someone at school told me how women should act, my grandma would say, “Well, that’s not true.” But at the same time, you're living between two worlds. It's difficult to trust what to believe.
How did watching cinema help you see versions of other lives?
I think cinema is bigger than life. You watch a Woody Allen film and think, “Maybe, I can find my way in New York." It's funny... it's a very strong medium. Kiarostami has talked about how Hollywood films are more [influential] than [the US] army. You watch a Bergman film and you feel less alone. Cinema has had a huge effect on me.
Do you feel like you made Ava for your teenage self, that it’s the film you needed when you were 16 years old?
Maybe I can say that this is a love letter to my lost adolescence.
When I sit with my friends from Iran, we all feel that [this guilt] comes from a society that put pressure on us. Basically, my generation felt this feeling of timidity and guilt versus the generation that came after me who feels frustrated. Now when you go to Iran, you see people shouting because they don't have any other way to express themselves; they start fights with each other. Before, people tried to isolate themselves.
One thing I love about Iranian cinema is that things are slower and the gaze is more considered... you spend a lot more time looking and taking images in. Ava has the same feeling. When you've been told to isolate yourself, how does that translate on screen?
I definitely thought: "We don’t need to cut all the time." My very first technical idea was that the camera works as an onlooker, as someone who is recording a secret. So this person can't move around, right? But at the same time, this isolation… we have lots of interiors and I wanted to show how Iranians have two kinds of lives. Outside, the father tries to say, "It doesn't matter if Ava has a boyfriend,” but inside, he's accusing the mother, "Why didn't you be more careful?" My idea was to reveal a secret that’s been kept in this family for a long time.
Do you believe in a female gaze?
Of course, because we bring a world with us on set. I'm sure all filmmakers contain both masculine and feminine parts; we have Todd Haynes who has a lovely and very feminine point of view. But in my case, it's very important to me that women make films about the issues we face.
You’ve said the worst advice you ever got was someone telling you not to make films about women's issues.
In Iran, they told me that. The person who had to give me the shooting permission said they weren’t interested in talking about women's issues. There's a heavy discrimination against women in Iran. They work a lot, they are more educated, they go to university, they know two languages, but finally when they finish school, there’s no equality.
For example, if a woman has two or three children, they give the family more money but it is because they prefer that women stay at home. For some years, they stopped birth control. We had good years in Iran of reform and moving forward, but then it stopped.
So even in the process of getting Ava made, was that negiogation with the government difficult?
They read the script and eventually they rejected it. But they didn't reject it the first day ... they said, "You can go and come back tomorrow." Finally, they told me: if you want to direct something, we can give you another script of "ours."
Yeah, they said they would fund it. I said, “No, I want to make Ava,” and they said, "It is not an important subject, it is not a good script." It was a humiliating process. I thought they would read my script and say "You have to censor this part and that part,” but it was very disappointing because it was my first time going back to Iran after six or seven years. I thought, "Well things have changed, so maybe I'll be welcome here,” but I wasn't.
So how did you make the movie?
First, I changed the lead character to a man because they said that they didn’t want a female protagonist. During this process, I was very happy to hear that women around the world had started to talk about their problems facing sexual harassment. I can't talk about it freely but we have similar problems of sexual harassment in Iran and I faced some trying to get my film made.
I'm really sorry to hear that.
It was very hard. I didn't have any money, I didn't have a producer. Canada helped me to write my script and develop my idea. I have a little company now and I'm so happy. But [Iran] is your origin country, so you think that maybe you have a chance and then you are sexually harassed just for a permission? In the United States, at least they can talk about their experiences, but we cannot.
So while you didn’t end up getting permission to shoot Ava, you just shot it anyways?
I had some visitors. They were very nice people. Normally, they'd say, “We're just checking in." They'd have tea.
How did you manage to stay calm and put a brave face on everything while you were shooting?
I'm by nature very calm. When you are in that situation, you try to manage as best as you can. I gave them all the information they wanted and we didn't do anything bad... Of course, my guilty conscience was still there, but I just wanted to make my film.
So now that the film is finished, do you think it will ever be released in Iran? Can you go back to screen it there?
I will try but I don't know… Maybe they will hate it, or they will ask me censor some parts.
Will it be considered a very controversial film there?
I think it’s the first time a film has talked about these issues in Iran. We have some films in Iran where they talk about taboos. But finally, they'll come back to their home and say "Oh, we are so sorry." I think it is the first time that a film about a teenage girl in Iran has been made honestly.
What are your hopes for future generations of women in Iran?
I hope they can live in peace and freedom in every aspect of their lives, to be able to be their true selves. I want the same for all women. This helps us live in a harmonious world and I hope men can take part of this movement toward equality too. For the filmmakers, I hope they can express themselves. We have to make films about our problems. Even if you don’t get the permission, even if you can’t screen your films in Iran, even if you can’t live there, it doesn't matter. We just have to change things. It cannot stay like this, generation after generation living with so much pressure. The only thing I can say is that I'm so happy that in some parts of the world, women have started to talk about sexual harassment. I wish that one day, we will be able to talk about it in Iran.
I had lots of problems making Ava, I've carried a lot of insult, but at least I made my film. This is how I live and I don't know anything else. I wake up with cinema and art and I sleep with cinema and art. Now, imagine because of sexual harassment people tell you you cannot do that.
I don't think anyone chooses to be a filmmaker. You're born and it happens to you… it's like the most natural part of your being.
Yes, there are things that are there for you and you cannot change them. I studied French literature in Iran and then I went to France to study plastic art, and then one day, one of my friends came over and said, "Sadaf, you know there is a cinema department and I remember that you love cinema. Go and register for the entrance exam." For three months I studied, I passed the exam, and then you’re right, it happened to me. I think I was born because I had to be a filmmaker.
On January 27, TIFF Bell Lightbox will screen Maurice Pialat’s À nos amours, a pivotal inspiration for Ava. Here, Sadaf Foroughi explains why the film was so influential for her.
I'm a cinephile. I watch a film every day; it's a constant for me, except when I travel. I studied film in France where I got exposed to all of French cinema, including the work of Maurice Pialat. À nos amours tells the story of a young girl, an adolescent, who is just starting to search for her identity. In my film, the ending music is a homage to Maurice Pialat. It also finishes with a final gaze to the audience, as in The 400 Blows and Manet’s painting of Olympia.