In Focus with Sonia K. Hadad
by Mehdi Pilehvarian, Marisa Sittheeamorn
Last week, FCC sat down with Sonia K. Hadad, a Tehran-based filmmaker whose latest film, Exam, screened in TIFF’s Short Cuts programme this year. Read along to learn more about Hadad’s early creative days, many sources of inspiration, and profound love for Hollywood.
FCC: Please tell us a little bit about yourself, your background and how you ended up entering the film industry?
SH: I was born and raised in Iran, where I also completed my studies. I did my Bachelor’s in playwriting because I love writing and wanted to choose a major close to creative writing. I started attending some video art installation workshops because I knew that nobody else could illustrate my writing better than myself. I then did my Master of Fine Arts in Film and Media Arts at Emerson College in Boston. Simultaneously, I started working as an editor for WGBH television channel in Boston as their segment editor for three different TV shows. I made my first short film, The Box, in 2014. My second film, Personal, was my master’s thesis project, which I went back to Tehran to shoot. It became the best thesis project of the year in my school.
And now my third film is at TIFF. The story of my current movie is a mixture of reality and, some parts of the story, I made up. I wanted to remake the bad experiences I had during high school. Two years ago I heard a story from my friend’s sister that she had to eat a small bag of weed because of the random bag checks that were happening. So I wanted to mix these two experiences, the one that I had, with this one.
FCC: In the first five minutes, and the last four minutes of Exam, we only see the main character through medium and close-up shots. We don’t see any other character face until she enters the classroom, and the camera goes wide. What is your interpretation of this set up?
SH: I wanted the audience to go through the world and the mind of this girl. I didn’t want to show any men on my camera, and only wanted to depict the feminine part of society and the feminine part of the main girl. And I used a lot of close-ups and medium shots to focus on the character. After I made sure the audience was with her, I made the frame wider. The audience is able to accept that we are with her, so we can experience the challenges she faces together.
FCC: There were some funny and impressive moments in the classroom, when the principal checks the bags of her students. For example, when one girl gets out her hairbrush, or when another girl’s dyed hair is revealed.
SH: These all are personal experiences I had with my principal. The moment the girl takes out her dyed hair from her scarf, stems from my own personal experience. One principal did it to me, even more harsh than this. I was banned from school for a week and I had to colour my hair dark to go back to school.
An interesting point I had when I was writing this story, is that I wanted to write a story that non-Iranian audiences could envision happening in their society. After one of the screenings, two American girls came to me and said ‘You remind us of our school and the things that used to happen in our highschool.” So, it was a very interesting part and surprising part of the story.
FCC: It proves that your film is universal.
SH: Yes, yes.
Hadad at TIFF 2019, Source: Sonia K. Hadad
FCC: Your film is one of the only two Iranian films in the festival this year. What does this mean to you, and do you feel a responsibility to the larger Farsi cinema community?
SH: Of course! When I heard about the TIFF selection this year, I got really excited because I knew a lot of shorts had been submitted by my friends. We were all waiting so hard for the announcement, and when it finally came out, I was so excited. I really liked the movie, for example, of this person and that person, so why did they choose my movie?
So yes, I think it is a big responsibility for me to be here as an Iranian, and as a short filmmaker.
FCC: Do you want your filmmaking to be contained inside Iran and what do you envision for the future of your work?
SH: The answer is no [laughs]. I love the thriller genre and action movies, and I’m brave to say that. I love Hollywood movies and the Hollywood industry. Maybe it’s because I started learning cinema in the U.S. Before coming to the states, I had no idea about the details of production. I learned everything from A to Z in the U.S. I love the level of work, the themes of the work, and I think I want to work more internationally.
I’d also really like to co-produce with different countries, and I’m doing my best to make it happen. That’s the main goal I have in mind. I don’t want to stick to the Iranian film industry, I want to work with different cultures, producers, and cast from all over the world. To experience more, to learn more.
FCC: So language and borders are not important to you?
SH: No, no. The story is what matters most.
FCC: Are there any upcoming projects you might want to share a little bit about with us?
SH: Actually, my next project happens in Iran again but the theme is closer to the genre I enjoy more, thriller movies. It’s about a robbery which happens in a jewelry shop in Tehran. All the characters are men and it’s full of blood and shooting.
FCC: When it comes to filmmaking and other creative works, who or what inspires you?
SH: It’s a difficult question to answer because I’m not a follower. Some people say for example, “I love this director” and that they want to make movies that are like theirs. I’m not such a person, but if I want to name a writer or novelist that inspired me most, Richard Brautigan would be my number one. I love his novels and his stories because they are very minimal, but at the same time, very rough and wild. For filmmakers, Darren Aronofsky is at the top of my list.
The first Iranain movie that I remember from my childhood that really, really affected me, is The Last Act (Farsi title: Pardehe Akhar) by Varuzh Karim-Masihi. As I remember, I was six or seven years old when I first watched this movie, and I watched it more than eight or nine times. I think it affected my style of thinking a lot. It was a mixture of a surreal world, and a real world.