Montreal-based Iranian filmmaker makes waves with a powerful film about adolescence

We spoke to Sadaf Foroughi about Ava.

Mahour Jabbari in Ava

With Ava, the feature debut of director Sadaf Foroughi, a new visual storyteller enters the Canadian cinema scene. An Iranian-Canadian production, the film depicts the unravelling of a family in Tehran when a couple’s only daughter initiates a private rebellion. Quiet and stunning, the film is a slow build of percolating adolescent rage, a forceful and poetic journey through the subjectivity of an Iranian teenager. Told with rich colours and impressionist light, the film is a harrowing and compelling moral drama.

Since its premiere at TIFF last fall, Ava has made waves in Canada. The film was highlighted as a new discovery at the festival by two juries and went on to be nominated for five Canadian Screen Awards. According to Fouroughi, who was born in Iran but has been living in Montreal for the past six years, Ava represents the first entry in a planned trilogy. She is currently developing the next project about a mother and her son.

I sat down with Foroughi to discuss the film.

Justine Smith: The movie has a beautiful colour palette. Can you explain how you developed it?

Sadaf Fouroughi: I wanted to add this beautiful and colourful world that adolescents live in even if they are unhappy. The palette comes from impressionist painters that I really admire, especially Degas. I knew I wanted red to be important because it reflects desire, wanting something you cannot have. It can be sexuality, family or finding your place in society. Little by little there is more red because there is a lot more anger as well, as the communication breaks down and everything becomes worse.

JS: You are also using long takes.

SF: I love 35 mm! This is also related to the colours as well. I didn’t have enough money, so how could I create the shots? That is part of it. The film is told from the point of view of an onlooker, registering the secrets of a family. The camera works as if someone is hiding somewhere.

I wanted to tell the story through image, so I designed everything. Today I was thinking, “Why did I work like this?” Sometimes, when it’s your first film and you’re working with a cast and crew of professionals, you don’t want to show them your fragility. So I was very prepared.

But the main reason was that I didn’t have money and I had to shoot the film in 18 to 19 days.

JS: You had a short shooting schedule but you had an extensive rehearsal process.

SF: I worked a lot with my actress because she is not a professional actress. The process was that we read the script and we analyzed it together. I didn’t want to push her or take her into my world but I tried to lead her to the meaning of the dialogue through our discussions.

We had 45 days of rehearsal and the cast was wonderful because I didn’t pay them. We worked on different plays between mother and daughter, daughter and father and the three of them together. We worked on looks and gestures and how they showed feeling. We talk about this in detail, too, but not only analyzing the text, it was a process of analyzing behaviours.

JS: This is your first feature – would you bring this rehearsal process to all of your films?

SF: I hope so! I see cinema like a big orchestra. There are separate pieces but all the instruments and all the musicians are also part of this big symphony. The role of the director is to give them this chance to be themselves and then at the same time bring them all together to give meaning to the music. During rehearsal you get this opportunity, as a director, to bring them into this world.

Sadaf Foroughi

JS: How did you do the casting?

SF: The casting for Ava was difficult because I wanted someone who understands the story, who has a special expression and who plays violin. Finally I found [Mahour Jabbari] after a year. She goes to a special school where they have cinema courses, theatre, English and French language. I found her through one of the professors.

She had played some small pieces in school but it was a little bit difficult at the very beginning. Little by little it worked. The best thing was that she knew where the problems were, she knows her fragility. After two or three weeks, she understood what I wanted and what she couldn’t do, and we worked from there.

JS: I know it can be difficult to get permits to shoot in Iran. How did you go about that process?

SF: It was a long process! I couldn’t find a producer and I did some travelling back and forth to Tehran to feel the country again because for six years I stayed in Montreal and I didn’t travel to Iran. In Iran, because of the subject, I thought it’s better that I ask for permission. So I went to the government and I presented the original script. They didn’t like it, of course. We did some changes and we finally shot the film.

JS: Anywhere in the world, young girls will be in conflict with their society.

SF: Totally. It’s nice to tell this story because normally the completion of art is with the spectator. If there is no spectator we don’t have an art product. The relationship between the audience and the artwork brings us closer, make us related. I’m happy to hear that the way that I finally ended up telling this story helps us to understand other girls around the world. We find out we are all related and not different.

JS: One thing that stood out to me in the film is how the headmistress wears white gloves. What is the story behind that?

SF: I didn’t want to present her as a bad woman. She is a caricature for me, a Minnie Mouse. My principal had gloves and I guessed she had some compulsions and it made her more frightening. What is she hiding? One day though, I understood she had nail polish. In Iran, at least then, we couldn’t have painted nails in public places. So my principal had it all the time! She was just trying to hide it from us. For me, though, it was more about the character, the cartoon.

JS: You close the film with a shot of Ava’s face, she is confronting the audience. Why close the film in this way?

SF: Different reasons. One is that, for me, Ava is the story of a lost adolescent. We start with an adolescent and finish the film with an adult – it is a story about passegehood. It is almost a confrontation, “What did you do to me?” It was very important as a mirror.

She really questioned the person, I don’t know who specifically, but anyone who might think about their behaviour towards adolescents. It is an important age when you start to enter society, and if the childhood and adolescent is sick, the society becomes sick, too.

As you know I am a cinephile, so it is a reference to Les 400 coups but different. In Les 400 coups, was a freeze frame and a wide shot. But Ava is questioning us, and she continues her gaze. She decides she will have control over her body and this is how I wanted to end.

It is also a reference to Manet’s “Olympia.” As a woman, this is who I am, I want to be free and I will be free.  ■

Ava opens in theatres on Friday, May 4. Watch the trailer here: