This interview is part of double feature on the film Ava. Please check out Ruth Novaczek’s review of the film.
Tell us about your trajectory as a filmmaker. What inspired you to express yourself in this medium?
For as long as I can remember I always had a book in my hand, reading, writing short stories and poetry, and meticulously keeping a diary. There was always a slice of realism in everything I wrote and read but I didn’t always want to become a filmmaker or writer. I wanted to become a Psychologist. So after studying psychology for four years, I spent another five years working in different mental hospitals in Stockholm. I often had to deal with young people my own age, which was very challenging, but I loved it. I was always fascinated by their stories. The human psyche is one of the most interesting subjects you can ever read about. But after five years I needed to break free from that world and that was when I decided to move to the UK and apply for a Media Production Degree at the University of Bedfordshire.
I am influenced by the likes of Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, and David Lynch and have a passion for exploring, what I call, everyday cultural schizophrenia. I like my work to have a rough, raw edge, a sense of spontaneity, and an often-surreal use of colour. It’s very important to me that a film is drawn from a deep personal experience. I consider both of my films, Ava and Sardines in a Can, to be slices of realism. So while studying for a Masters in Fine Arts and Photography, I was writing about the people I met every day. I guess I love stories about transition and self-discovery.
I was inspired to work in film by real life. Life and people I came across who had fled their countries and their stories. I believe creativity always comes from your own social and cultural environment and experiences. I think we live in a very complex society. It’s the kind of society you can’t help but have very deep feelings about, including negative ones. So naturally my films reflect various realities. I want my films to have a critical viewpoint of society. Film is about people we would never normally know about. We may pass them on the street but we won’t know why they are here, what made them leave their home countries, to be forever a guest in another country.
We all live in darkness and there is so much confusion in our society. I’m trying to make some sort of sense of it in my own way and to give a voice to unheard stories. Conflict inspires art.
You not only directed but also wrote and produced Ava. Can you discuss your process of juggling all three of those roles?
It feels like spinning plates! I’ve worked non-stop for the last 9 months. There’s so much to do when you produce and direct. I feel like I’ve just given birth to a 20-minute teaser called Ava! It was one of the hardest things but also one of the most rewarding. It makes you smile when you haven’t broken any plates! And it’s important to me to play a role in each department, as it’s an important story for me to get right. It’s not a well-known subject, so being involved in each department is beneficial for the project. Of course it was difficult and there were times when I did struggle but the results will speak for themselves.
Ava is a film about a woman born in England to Iranian parents who becomes involved in human smuggling. What attracted you to this topic and how did you research it?
My favourite films don’t betray the audience. They have characters who are flawed, who don’t speak in perfect sentences and who don’t have perfect story arcs. I spoke to a number of people coming into Sweden about their journey and to people who had escaped Iran, and their stories never wrapped up so easily. I think the audience yearns for that kind of honesty because the fantasy that Hollywood is enamored with actually betrays people in the long run. I wanted to bring untold stories, stories about identity, and depict difficult topics. Ava is based on true aspects of human behaviour. People can get into trouble, a lot of trouble. Ava is about the strange things people’s desires lead them to do when they are struggling to make sense of life. In an attempt to make sense of things, Ava’s paranoia grows. She doesn’t find truth but begins to misperceive the truth of things instead. All these things are part of the human experience. When you make a film, you’re inside it. Ava is not just about trafficking. It’s about a journey that the lead character chooses in order to escape her reality. On that journey, she discovers you are free to choose but equally you are not free from the consequences of your choices, even in a ‘free country’.
You are currently working to expand your 20-minute teaser of Ava into a feature. Having a full story in mind, how did you select the scenes you shot for the teaser?
I chose scenes that introduce the characters enough to tease the audience without giving away major plot lines. It’s always hard to produce a teaser, trying to balance how much you should tell the audience and what scenes you should choose. I wanted to have a kind of narrative and bring the audience into the story without giving away each character’s storyline. I wanted to use the scenes that speak to me as a writer, show my style as a director and show my production as a producer. Also, as the feature script is in four different countries, it was difficult to portray this in the teaser. There are so many more surprises in Ava and I cannot wait to reveal them all in the feature film.
What are your current fundraising efforts to complete the film and do you have a production schedule in mind?
The feature is already constructed—a full-length draft screenplay has been written—and the teaser was developed from there. I am adjusting the feature script currently to reflect feedback and further ideas on how to best depict the human trafficking trade accurately.
The purpose of producing the teaser was to find a producer who has the same passion for the project as I do. Once I have a producer on board, we’ll build the budget and schedule and begin to raise finance. I envisage the majority of the funds will be raised through private equity investment, but I’m equally interested to explore using crowdfunding to raise part of the film’s budget. The film is also particularly suited to a co-production with a company based in one of the foreign territories we’ll be filming in.
Toward the end of the teaser, Ava explains to one of the people she is helping smuggle into England that even though she was born in a free country, she still has problems. They are not as grave as the ones experienced by those who must flee their motherlands in order to survive but they are still problems. This seems to be one of the main themes of Ava’s stories. Can you elaborate on that notion and how you see the film as helping us unravel it?
Where there is light, there are shadows. Ava is a second-generation young woman who feels she is neither from the East or the West, trapped between two identities. Fighting to find where she belongs, alongside with her own demons and her depression, she feels restless. Her life is stagnant and she cannot breathe.
Sometimes it doesn’t matter who we are, where we live, we can all fall into depression. We all can feel lost. We shouldn’t feel guilty about the way we feel, although sometimes we need a wake-up call. Sometimes you can appreciate your freedom only if you know what to do with it.
Being Swedish Iranian you share Ava’s cultural hybridity. How do your own experiences belonging to two cultures influence your vision for Ava and her journey?
I feel privilege to belong to two cultures but when I was growing up in Sweden it was less multicultural than it is now and people didn’t understand me. There was a lot of racism towards the unknown, so I did struggle to find my identity in a small city. It was easier to ignore my Iranian roots to fit in, but my mum was really strict with us. She wanted us to learn Farsi and experience our rich culture. Ava also isn’t recognised as British by her husband’s side of the family and she is not “Iranian enough,” as she doesn’t speak perfect Farsi either. As a character, she is very disconnected with her roots and it’s hard for her to connect with a country where there is no freedom of speech and where one of the film’s characters would be sentenced to death if he returned to Iran simply for being gay.
Why do we need to tell female-centered, culturally complex stories like Ava in film?
Hollywood in general still feels like a man’s world and it’s important to depict women in a protagonist role. I am not sure why the media is so obsessed with men as heroes and women as some kind of object. Movies are a reflection of our society, so of course we need female protagonists. We need more women in the film business generally and more female stories and perspectives on cinema screens. After all it’s almost 2014!
Do you have any advice for filmmakers who have their own stories they’re burning to tell although they lack the funding or infrastructure to do so?
All I can say is that it’s amazing to be able to take a unique, untold story and make it something that the audience can connect with. If you have story worth telling, you should tell it. If you have passion for something, then it’s worth all the hard work. But before starting a project, you have to consider if you are ready to put everything into it. Not just money or time, it’s hours of work that may never be recognised, spending the weekend at home completely absorbed in your writing, then going to your day job. It’s also important to have good people around you who believe in you. You need to surround yourself with other passionate crewmembers. I was very lucky to have that.
I guess my advice is don’t leave your day job. Persistence and passion are important. I have always admired people who have this amazing vision to get things done. Every filmmaker has their own individual style, story, and path—you can’t keep listening to every negative comment, otherwise your voice will not be heard.