(Iran/Canada/Qatar, 103 min.)
Written and directed by Sadaf Foroughi
Starring: Manhour Jabbari, Bahar Nouhian, Leili Rashidi, Vahid Aghapour
Sarah Foroughi is undoubtedly a talent to watch. The deep and insightful screenplay for her first feature Ava gives a strong voice and agency to its young protagonist struggling against patriarchal society in Tehran. Ava is a bold a necessary film that gives hope for young girls and women as our parents’ generation becomes more progressive and learns to offer daughters the same opportunities and respect afforded to sons.
Ava sits within an emerging but group of films telling stories in the Middle East about young girls with agency making small cracks in the patriarchal ceiling. Films like Barmak Akram’s Wajma: An Afghan Love Story and Iram Haq’s What Will People Say, for example, but this Farsi-language co-pro is a first for Canada.
As far as Canadian films this year go, Ava, played by Manhour Jabbari, is to live action drama what The Breadwinner’s Parvani is to animation. Like The Breadwinner, this co-production invites Canadians to consider the stories that might force young women like Ava or Parvani to seek a new life outside their native lands. Ava’s situation is one she desperately needs to escape, since the suffocating conservatism of her community is no place for one to grow. Foroughi illustrates the outdated values used to keep young women in a cage when Ava and her friends feed their awakening sexuality, an appetite their parents and teachers tell them to deny any food. Kids will be kids and Ava’s group of friends makes a perfectly adolescent bet that brings disastrous consequences. It’s not like a bet one would see in American Pie, but one could say it’s comparable in relation to the conservatism of Ava’s family and neighbours.
Ava’s mother, suspicious of her daughter’s chumminess with a classmate, takes her to the gynecologist for clinical verification of her purity. Talk about an absolute violation of Ava’s body and spirit. The doctor confirms what the viewer suspects: Ava is still a virgin.
However, innocence is lost with this trip to the doctor and Ava pulls the veil down from her eyes to see the world around her and, more significantly, perceive how it views her. She becomes outspoken at school and teachers deem a bad influence. Outward displays of agency and independence are a big no-no at her school.
Foroughi privileges the words and experiences of her young heroine. Ava provides a unique and progressive critique of the systems that shape young minds through repression and subjugation by letting us observe not only the classrooms of Tehran, but also the kitchens, bedrooms, schoolyards, and music classes through Ava’s critical eye. The sharp focus of Foroughi’s vision presents clearly a society in which women are treated as secondary citizens. Intimate scenes also show this dynamic from the perspective of Ava’s parents. While her father is sympathetic, her mother internalizes the gender roles so strictly that it blinds her to Ava’s well-being.
Ava covers the subject through such rich characterizations that the strengths of Foroughi’s writing offset the comparative drawbacks of her direction. The film has echoes of Wong Kar Wai with shots that creep around corners and peek at private space through doorways. Sometimes these compositions convey different ways of seeing that obscure a clear view of the humans before our eyes. For every shot that provocatively hits its mark in Ava’s unique visual style, however, four or five misfire. One scene, for example, watches a conversation play out with the camera framing the speakers from the shoulders down. What Foroughi aims to achieve by cutting off the heads of the actors is unclear and, unfortunately, awkward. Mirrors show clear reflections of characters who are out of focus in the foreground. The flourish detracts from the urgency of the material, while a few too many long takes add to the overall inconsistency of aesthetics, like Ava’s music classes that are basically shot in protracted master shots.
However, Ava might be even timelier now in the midst of the #MeToo movement than it was when it debuted at TIFF earlier this year. The uneven aesthetics are secondary to the topicality and significance of the film. Ava features a knockout performance by Manhour Jabbari in the title role and she carries nearly every scene with her bold and fiery turn. When she faces the camera in Ava’s final frame with a direct defiant stare, the ambiguous ending invests us in her dilemma by asking how long much longer we can be silent witnesses.
Ava plays at Canada’s Top Ten at TBLB on Thursday, Jan. 18 and Friday, Jan 19.