TIFF Next Wave Spotlight with Sadaf Foroughi
Director Sadaf Foroughi is an Iranian born, Montreal-based filmmaker. She began her career in 2003 by creating and producing short films, documentaries, and video art pieces. I had the chance to speak with Foroughi – a first-time TIFF attendee – and talk about what it took to make the leap from short films to her first feature Ava and the difficulties of being a female director.
Ava is the story of an upper-middle class teen in Tehran with a strict routine of school, violin lessons, and homework. When Ava’s mistrustful and overprotective mother questions her relationship with a boy, it bleeds into all spheres of her life, triggering teenage rebellion and life-altering choices.
LW: Can you describe at its core what Ava is about using only five words?
SF: Iranian struggle between tradition and modernity.
LW: Is this an original tale, or inspired by true events and/or a living subject?
SF: I don’t want to say it’s autobiographical, but this story is very personal to me. As you know, when writing a script you have to add drama and fictionalize certain events. I drew on things from my adolescence, but also added events to round out the story.
LW: What was the goal of in telling the story of Ava?
SF: My main inspiration in making Ava was to examine the taboos that have been engraved in my mind and the role of women in society. In this respect, I chose to focus on a small society called home. Home is where we are first imprinted with our social cues. Home is where we learn the things that we carry into the world. I also felt it important to talk about the impact pressure and tradition have on young girls and women and how they relate to mother/daughter relationships.
LW: In watching the film, adults respond to Ava’s “rebellion” more punitively rather than being understanding. Looking at my notes, I described them all as “overzealous”, but thought that may be my Western bias showing. Was that an actual depiction of what happens, or exaggerated for dramatic effect?
SF: I didn’t want to be too negative in that respect and held back a bit. It was actually worse. For instance – in school, teachers did go through our bags, pulled as aside and asked us to keep tabs on our classmates. We weren’t allowed to have mirrors. I once went to school with pink sneakers and they called my parents and said it was a distraction. Back then, we were in the midst of a war so times were different, but the more things change, the more they stay the same. Now we have private schools (which didn’t exist when I was a child) and public schools. Private schools are not as strict as public schools, but there are still rules and expectations.
LW: Would it be fair to say that Ava was experiencing more of an awakening than a rebellion?
SF: It’s outright rebellion. She wants to break away from these daily routines (school, violin lessons, studying and isolation) that mimic everyone else’s. Even in the way they dress, everyone looks like each other. She wants to break away and be different like every teen, but because of that she’s banished and branded a problem.
She’s exploring her place in society and the possibilities in front of her. She’s learning that her mother and father have flaws and are projecting said flaws onto her. These external forces are so overwhelming, it impacts how she envisions her future and her daily life and causes her to lose her way. She’s a young girl trying to find her place in society and it’s a very daunting task.
LW: Any and every film shoot has its set of challenges – especially for women directors. How would you describe the process of tackling your first feature-length film?
SF: I had trouble finding a producer, so I did it myself along with my colleague, Kiarash Anvari. We had a very, very small budget and only 18 days of shooting. The pre-production process took about 2 years, but by the time we started filming, I had everything ready the way I envisioned and passed it to my crew.
We shot in Iran, and the crew was not keen on taking orders from a woman. It didn’t matter that I was Iranian also. This was a new experience for many of them. I had to be firm and let them know I was in charge. Again, we only had 18 days. The tide eventually turned and we got the job done.
LW: How do you approach working with and directing teen actresses versus adults?
SF: I find it easer to work with teenagers than adults. Teenagers are still malleable because they’re in-between childhood and adulthood. They still have an imagination. But with adults, everything tends to be very cut and dry, very black and white. I love all my actors and actresses, but I felt a particular connection to the younger ones.
LW: Unfortunately, Mahour Jabbari (Ava) and Shayesteh Sajadi (Melody) were unable to attend TIFF and the film’s premiere. Have you been able to relay the reactions about the film to them?
SF: Yes, they know everything. I wake up every morning, get online and share recent updates! They love reading about the film, especially notes about their individual performances. Ultimately, they were okay with how things worked out. It is sad, but we acknowledged it was always a possibility. It would’ve been exciting for them to see themselves on the big screen for the first time. They even made dresses for the occasion, but it was not in the cards. They were very disappointed but handled it well like the true professionals they are.
LW: You’ve written, edited, produced and directed films. Which of those processes is your favorite?
SF: I enjoy writing and directing more than anything. Producing, not so much. However, for this project, I’m glad I was able to do this myself because it allowed me more freedom. If I had a producer, they may have tried to stifle my vision. But I’m happy that I got a chance to address all of the philosophical ideas I had. Filmmaking is a team effort and it’s important to have feedback on every aspect of it. On my next project, I’d like to work with a producer so that I can focus more on writing and directing.
LW: What directors inspire you and your work?
SF: First and foremost I look to women directors like Agnès Varda and Sofia Coppola. Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides is one of my all-time favorite films. I’m also a fan of French cinema and find inspiration in Maurice Pialat’s À Nos Amours (To Our Loves) and François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows.
LW: Can you tell me a little about your next project?
SF: I’m working on a coming-of-age forbidden love story about two young men in Iran. It’s in the early stages of pre-production and will most likely be released late 2018/early 2019.
LW: Are you still teaching or are you fully invested in filmmaking at the moment?
SF: Right now my focus is on filmmaking and working with the Canada Council of the Arts. When you teach, you learn at the same time. I love teaching and if there were a way to fit it in, I’d do more of it. But I find it better to focus on one thing and do it well – right now, that thing is writing…and directing.
LW: What advice do you have for other female directors and those aspiring to direct?
SF: Simply to be strong, make and share your stories. We have to work together and be supportive of one another to make a difference in the world and have our voices heard.
Check out Lauren’s review of Ava here. For more info about Ava and the Toronto International Film Festival, please visit http://www.tiff.net/tiff/ava. For more about the Next Wave selections at TIFF, click here.
**This piece also appears on the blog Black Girl Nerds.