Coming up this weekend are two screenings of Ava, the directorial debut of Iranian-Canadian filmmaker Sadaf Foroughi, a widely acclaimed coming-of-age tale that depicts an Iranian teenager's struggle to become her own person in a society with strict rules for women, and under the eye of a suspicious and over-controlling mother. Sonia Rayka, an intern at the Wex supporting the Manager of Public and University Programs, and Kinza Sami, a Muslim who represents the undergraduate student body as a University Student Government off-campus senator, screened Ava for a Q&A about the film, its view of Iranian society, its depiction of a young Muslim woman, and what it really gets right about relationships between women.
Sonia Rayka is an incoming fourth year undergraduate student at the Ohio State University, studying Comparative American/Ethnic Studies and Spanish with a minor in Film Studies. She is also the president of Mad Royal Film Society. Kinza Sami is an incoming fourth year at the Ohio State University studying International Relations & Diplomacy, with minors in business and global public health.
Sonia: After watching Ava, do you think the film creates a sense of universality in experience? Coming-of-age films often feel relatable to anyone, but I think Ava achieves it in a way that almost puts the location and culture at the forefront as well.
Kinza: After watching it, it’s not difficult for me to understand why [it's been] so well-received. The theme and message of the movie and the experiences portrayed in the film all aim to shed light on the quintessential teenage girl, coming-of-age story—and the fact that it’s about a young girl growing up in Tehran doesn’t make that mission any less achievable. It’s easy to see why people may feel particularly drawn to this story, however, with the way Muslims—especially women and girls—are portrayed in the most recent news headlines or in the newest Hollywood blockbusters.
Sonia: Why do you think movies like Ava are finding an audience?
Kinza: If I can be candid, I think part of the reason movies like this are successful and relatable is precisely because people want them to be successful and relatable. People want some legitimacy in the stereotypes they hold of certain populations and I think, to many viewers, this movie may be seen as a commentary on what it’s like to be a Muslim girl growing up in the Middle East. It also helps that it's directed by a Muslim woman, which immediately legitimizes that perspective, right? But the fact of the matter is, this movie’s not about that at all. It is not at all a discussion of a woman’s place in Islam, but rather a woman’s place in Iranian society, and most, if not all, audiences likely have an unfortunate tendency to conflate the two.
"It is not at all a discussion of a woman’s place in Islam, but rather a woman’s place in Iranian society, and most, if not all, audiences likely have an unfortunate tendency to conflate the two."
Sonia: What spoke to you most in the film?
Kinza: The most impactful scenes, in my opinion, were those that compelled my humanity, like when Ava demanded to know why her mother was so distrusting of her; scenes I felt like I could almost remember… The innocent but simultaneously rebellious desire for freedom, like when Ava sneakily hung out with Nima, or the pain that came with her mother’s seemingly bigger concern for society and status, than for her own daughter’s wellbeing. These are not moments and emotions exclusive to Ava’s story—they transcend all boundaries and languages! If you forget she’s in Tehran, forget she wears the hijab, forget the circumstances of her home and school life. Ava’s story is powerful precisely because at its core, it is a story of a girl desperate for autonomy, and regardless of what you are, where you are, or what you believe, you want the same.
Sonia: What are your thoughts on the representation of Muslim women in US films? Do you think Foroughi's perspective brings forth a new voice through her creation of Ava?
Kinza: I think the biggest takeaway from Foroughi’s film is, along the lines of what I previously mentioned, the fact that it is meant to be an autobiographical account of her own experiences—not a broader dialogue or debate of what it means to be a Muslim or Iranian woman. Definitely, there are things to be said about the way Muslim women are depicted in American media, but I’m not entirely sure that it’s a relevant discussion. The best thing we can do as a society moving forward is recognize and acknowledge that differentiation. No Muslim woman, let alone Foroughi, sharing her personal experience could or would speak on behalf of the nearly one billion Muslim women in the world, and if I so much as entertain the idea here, then I myself am contributing to the issue at hand.
Sonia: Do you see any parallels or similarities to themes addressed in Ava to your own experience growing up in the US?
Kinza: Something that stood out to me pervasively and consistently throughout the film was how completely conditioned the women and girls were to compete with each other, to be distrusting of each other, and to turn their backs on one another. This was shown through numerous ways in the movie. It was seen in the tumultuous relationships between mother and daughter, friend and friend, and even in the headmaster’s strict dealings with her students. I only realized how jarring this dynamic was towards the end of the movie, but what makes me most uncomfortable about it is how familiar it was. I see it in the way we, women in America including myself, interact with each other on a day-to-day basis, as a result of patriarchal and other institutionalized concepts drilled into us since childhood. Ava was a good reminder to be hyperaware of these kinds of attitudes, even (and especially) when it comes to our own behaviors.
Image: Mahour Jabbari in Ava; photo: Shahin Azma, courtesy of Sweet Delight Pictures and Grasshopper Film.