“You can see Sadaf everywhere in the characters,” Sadaf Foroughi says of her film Ava. “It’s really what I lived, growing up. This film is like a love letter to my adolescence.” TIFF / AccuSoft Inc.
TORONTO — A bright-eyed, beaming woman walked up to me on Thursday afternoon, the first day of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), and said hello like we were old friends.
I feigned recognition while chatting with her and her companion for a few moments, before finally giving in.
“Sorry, but where do I know you from?” I asked.
“Yoga class,” she replied.
Ah, yes, it was all coming back to me. As things go in yoga, the woman and I had exchanged friendly nods over the past year or more but had never actually spoken. Or so I thought.
A little further probing revealed she was at the festival to present her first feature, Ava, for which I had interviewed her by telephone for a story on Quebec films at TIFF, a couple weeks prior — following which we probably both went off to yoga class and exchanged oblivious, friendly nods.
By Sunday, when we sat down for a pre-arranged formal interview, Sadaf Foroughi was walking on air. After spending years preparing and self-producing her film — with partner Kiarash Anvari, with her at TIFF, via their company Sweet Delight Pictures — the Iranian Montrealer is finally seeing doors open. Wide.
Before the festival, Ava had already been picked up for distribution by Canada’s biggest independent distributor, Mongrel International. At the Ava première on Friday night, TIFF Canadian films programmer Magali Simard introduced Foroughi as one of Canada’s next great filmmakers, explaining that she and fellow programmer Steve Gravestock had been simply “floored” by Ava.
Adding to the attention, Foroughi received a bittersweet blast of free publicity over the weekend when her film’s two young Iranian actresses were denied entry into Canada by the Canadian embassy in Turkey. The story garnered write-ups in several Canadian publications, as well as The Hollywood Reporter and Indiewire.com.
Mahour Jabbari, 17, and Shayesteh Sahadi, 18, had been scheduled to attend Friday’s première and had letters from TIFF to prove it. But they received letters from the embassy doubting their motives for attending the festival, their financial ability to support themselves while in Toronto and their intention to return to Iran afterward.
Smartly avoiding getting drawn into a controversy that could overtake the buzz surrounding her film, Foroughi is philosophical about the situation.
“I understand,” said the filmmaker, who has lived in Montreal since 2009. “It’s better in Canada than in the U.S.; I’m so happy here. The girls are so mature — they understood right away that sometimes there are restrictions on Iranians. It’s sad, but we have to look ahead. I do wish they could have come, though. They’re very cute.”
It’s with similar optimism that Foroughi tells the story of Ava (Jabbari), a young Iranian girl increasingly at odds with her parents and school authorities, who pressure her to conform to the very constricting status quo.
“It’s a very personal story,” said Foroughi, who was born and raised in Tehran, moving to France at age 20, where she studied art and film, and earned a PhD in the philosophy of cinema before coming to Montreal a decade later.
“You can see Sadaf everywhere in the characters,” she continued. “It’s really what I lived, growing up. This film is like a love letter to my adolescence.”
A rather fraught love letter, I remarked, pointing out the mounting frustration Ava feels as she is prevented from seeing her best friend Melody (Sahadi), playing violin or coming and going as she pleases.
Ultimately, Foroughi explained, Ava is a hopeful story about a young woman finding her voice. Ironically, as a grown woman making her first feature, the filmmaker had to circumvent roadblocks of her own. At the top of the list was the fact that Iranian censors are very strict about what can and can’t be shown on-screen. Filmmakers wishing to shoot in the country must submit their scripts for approval, and Foroughi’s first draft was rejected.
“They didn’t want a woman shooting a film about women,” she said, “so I changed the script. I changed my protagonist and inserted a man (in Ava’s place). They accepted it, and voilà.”
Her permits in order, she went ahead and shot her movie as originally intended. Foroughi has no illusions that her sleight-of-hand will pass unnoticed, but she hopes that once Iranian authorities see the final product, they will be understanding.
“They will surely check,” she said. “I hope to shoot in Iran again, so I hope (they don’t mind).”
AT A GLANCE
Montrealers will get a chance to see Ava before its theatrical release. The film screens as part of the Festival du nouveau cinéma, Oct. 4 to 15.
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