A true woman of the world, Sadaf Foroughi was born in Tehran, studied film at University of Provence in Aix-en-Provence, France and now makes her home in Montreal, a journey that has entailed speaking in multiple dialects, so when it came to making her feature debut “Ava,” she had to choose the one that she thought could speak to the most people.
“I tried to find a new language of my own,” said Foroughi, whose bold first film may literally be in Farsi, but tells the story of a rebellious young woman in Iran fighting tooth and nail to assert her place in society in such boldly cinematic terms that nothing is ever lost in translation no matter what your native tongue is.
Yet for as arresting as Foroughi’s images are, quietly morphing over the course of the film with incremental shifts in aspect ratio and lens choice amidst striking compositions to increase the pressure aesthetically on her lead character (Mahour Jabbari), they are only there to open your eyes to sneak into your heart as the writer/director takes audiences deep inside Ava’s struggle to aspire to be as successful as her mother (Bahar Nouhian), a doctor, while doing so on her terms. A challenge for any teenager, Ava’s restlessness to become become her own person is particularly rough when women are conditioned to be second-class citizens in Tehran, with her mother more adamant than her father about adhering to school rules that make no sense to her since it’s the only way she can see to move forward.
A reckoning onscreen is inevitable, but Foroughi brilliantly angles for one off of it as she combines a formal daring with her own intimate experience of such an upbringing in Iran to create an invigorating portrait of a woman we’ve never seen before in the West, summoning the strength that comes along with the uncertainty of being young, asking questions that no one else will and pushing limits personally to find where she’s comfortable rather than have society dictate where her place is. Showing a confidence that it’s invigorating to see Ava grow into, Foroughi makes an unflinching and engaging drama from which sights and sounds will be rattling in your head for months after, something to which I can attest after seeing the film premiere at last fall’s Toronto Film Festival. On the eve of “Ava”’s stateside debut, beginning its run at the Quad Cinema in New York, Foroughi spoke of crafting such an unforgettable debut, dealing with sexism on the set, and how “Ava” is only the start of her ambitions.
You mentioned at the film’s premiere at Toronto that you always envisioned this film in four segments stylistically. How did that structure come to you?
It was my first feature, so it was very classic [at first]. When you come out from the school, you know how you have to write it, but I’m not a classic person, so I tried to make it different. [laughs] I wrote it as a variation in music — I took a stem and I created different stories around that stem because I think film and music are very close to each other. They touch our nerves somehow in the same way, so I wanted to make this marriage between film and music, and that’s why they play also Beethoven variations during the film. And it is the first part of the trilogy that I’m working on. I’m having three parts and “Ava”’s the first.
Since you seem steeped in all the arts, how did film become the medium you wanted to work in?
I think it’s by accident. [laughs] I wanted to go to film school in Iran and my parents didn’t want it — not any art school — and then I went to France to study literature and then I thought why not art? Because my parents are not here any more. [laughs] I found out there was a cinema department in the university, and I went there. I had to pass an entrance exam [that] I had to study for for three months, but then I went to that department. Why cinema? I don’t know. Sometimes we don’t choose. They choose us because it happened that I went to France and the process was very easy and then it happened that I went to the cinema department. And now I love cinema. I wake up with cinema and I sleep with cinema.
The visual style of the film is so striking. Did you have strong ideas about that from the start?
Since I didn’t have enough of a budget and I had only 19 days of shooting, I prepared everything before the shoot, so I knew exactly what I wanted. I knew the colors, I knew the shots, the frame. Because I started my study in France by classic art, so I’m very inspired by the impressionists, especially the French impressionists like Degas, and the idea of cutting images somehow [in the frame] is coming from the impressionists because I found it goes very well with my story. I wanted to have not only the script do the storytelling, but also the image that helps to give this feeling of the impression and repression.
You’re able to convey that with blocking as well and how Ava is positioned among others. What was it like figuring out how to show bodies moving through space?
As you know, [women] have to cover from the head to the toe in public places, but not at home. So I had to cover my actresses in the film because it is public, and I found I don’t want to have the same picture as we have from lots of Iranian movies that we have [so I asked myself], how can I do it differently? And I thought that when we are limited or covered, we express ourselves with hands or faces more. That’s why we see sometimes when there is a shot of the mother and the daughter, if they have a discussion, I cut their heads because I thought their hands can talk even more. We don’t need to see their faces.
How did you find your wonderful lead actress Mahour Jabbari to play Ava?
Yes, she’s very wonderful. It was very hard to find her because I wanted to find someone who understands my story. The film is very personal story. I think as a filmmaker or an artist, we only have one work of art, which is our life, and we divide it into small pieces. Even if the protagonists are relatively different, it comes from how you analyze yourself, your vision, and your observation. One day I found myself in front of a story that I wanted to hide for years and years and you know, sometimes when you don’t like something, you just forget it. You just ignore it and it came up again. So I wanted someone to have a very special expression, especially in the face, [to play Ava] and that was difficult. Almost for a year, I searched for Ava and I found her by accident in a cinema school, but she was there only to meet a friend of hers.
What is it like to set up a production in Iran, particularly as a female director?
The whole process of the creation was wonderful, although it was very difficult. We didn’t have money. I didn’t have money and I had different hats. I had to be very careful about financial problems and I had to be very careful about my shots. It was very difficult to work as a woman because even though the crews were young and very creative, normally they worked with men. I have a nature that I’m [typically] very gentle and very kind, but that didn’t work — sometimes [the crew] didn’t want to listen to me and when I wanted to design my shots as it is now, sometimes I heard them talk about how I don’t know how cinema works. But I didn’t care and I did what I wanted to do and I pretended I was very angry and that I’m very cruel every day, just to have the result that I wanted to have. [laughs] And we needed permission to shoot the film in Iran, and that process was very long. But I’m happy that we made it.
You would’ve likely have done all of this work anyway as part of the intention of the film, but given how you might’ve been limited by the strictures of either your budget or filming outside with women, were the interior shots more important to fill with certain character details? I can recall you referring to mirrors as a reflection of time and distance.
Everything is there for a reason. Mirrors are there because I wanted to frame the past and the future – and the present – [as] embedded in a time and it is limited, so it shows repression more. Also because the mother and the daughter reflect each other, even if they are from different generations. They both have the same life. I designed everything precisely and everything, except for the school, I designed myself. The house [where Ava lives], for example, was a flat house, like a condo, and we made this corridor ourselves, so the shots with the mother and the husband in the kitchen, with that mirror, they have two different doors so [there’s] the idea that they are living in the same house, but they [reside in] two different worlds. I tried to design all the interiors to tell the story in image. And why we have all these interiors is because “Ava” has almost lost her femininity. Her mother has almost lost in her femininity and because of that, I wanted to have corridors, more interiors.
What’s it been like taking the film around the world?
Wonderful. When you work hard for three years and do nothing but write the script and try to find a producer, and you see people like your film — that they understand or I can make this connection with them, I’m very happy to see that. Because why do I make a film? Because I have something to tell and not only to tell a friend, but to share my story with the world. I wanted to show people that Iranians aren’t different people [from anyone else in the world]. We have the same problems here in Canada, so we are not different. In media, we normally see only the bad parts of Iran, but I wanted to show how human they are, with good and bad parts, and women still limitations, and of course, [this film is set] in Iran, but I didn’t want to reduce a human being [by] their origin or culture.
Now that you’ve made this film, has it changed your ideas about what you want a trilogy of films to be?
No, because I had the idea [for] two other stories [before “Ava] and I’m working on the second right now, but it helped me develop it better. I [still] see it like a symphony with three different variations, so I’m not working differently, but maybe I have a little bit more responsibility now because I see the impact when you make a film. You want to have a dialogue with others, and you have to be careful, so I feel more responsible now, and I’m working even more on my second feature.
“Ava” opens on April 27th in New York at the Quad Cinema. A full schedule of cities and dates is here.