Following its world premiere way back in 2017 at the Toronto Film Festival, Sadaf Foroughi’s Ava finally makes its way on to UK screens. The Iranian-Canadian director’s feature debut has already been favourably compared with the films of Asghar Farhadi, but make no mistake: Ava is a singular vision marking Foroughi as a talent to watch.
Mahour Jabbari makes an equally impressive debut as young Ava, who is on the verge of adulthood but bound by the interwoven strictures of family life and Iranian society. If one word could describe Ava, it would be passion: her adolescent ferocity burns like a raging furnace, channelled through a gaze that in one fourth-wall breaking moment is almost too much to bear.
Ava’spassion finds numerous outlets: positively through her violin lessons, her minor rebellions with her friends and the boy she takes music lessons with, less so with her dysfunctional relationship with her mother, Bahar (Bahar Noohian) and one horrifying instance of self harm.
In Ava’s Tehran, misogynistic discourses manifest themselves through social proscription, expectation and moral presumption. Set mostly in Ava’s home and at her all-girl school, much of this is perpetuated by other women. Some of it is obvious, such as the sanctimonious, white-gloved finger wagging of headteacher Mrs. Dehkhoda (Leila Rashidi) – but more subtly through the tittle-tattling that Ava’s friends engage in, and her parents’ sexual hypocrisy.
The most monstrous act of misogyny comes, of course, against Ava’s bodily autonomy when her mother forces her to be examined by a gynaecologist to check that her hymen is intact. There are other, flashier examples of Foroughi’s visual control: she frequently uses mirrors to block scenes, shooting others on a single plane or at a fixed height that cuts off characters heads or leaves them out of frame. There’s also a fixation on hands as the part of the body where repressed feelings manifest – Ava’s violin playing curtailed by a self-inflicted hand injury is one example; Mrs. Dehkhoda’s white gloves another – but there is something about the simplicity of the clinic scene that really sticks in the throat.
Foroughi cuts abruptly from a shot of Ava in their home, asking why they are going to the doctor, to Bahar waiting outside the clinic. Ava emerges from the building, out of focus in the background, walking towards Bahar, into focus and out of frame. Without a word or even an interior shot of the clinic, we know of the violence just done to Ava; her body is not her own, but the property of society to be picked over and judged for impurity.
The horrified rage on Ava’s face speaks enough of the structures that condone and even demand such violence, and to discourses that frame crimes as compassion. It is a deeply empathetic sequence in seeking to understand both Ava and her mother, who as perpetrator is also a victim. Ava’s power, however, is not to shock, but to understand this extreme as part of a continuum that frames women as the property and moral responsibility of a society that is – even where men are notably absent – fundamentally patriarchal.
Christopher Machell | @MachellFilm