As I’m sure you know, we recently published Issue #2 of the JUMPCUT MAGAZINE and the focus for the issue was sophomore features. We were also lucky enough to speak with Iranian director Mona Zandi Haghighi about her recent sophomore feature, African Violet – and we’ve decided to make the interview available for all of our valued readers.
African Violet is an understated comedic-drama about a middle-aged woman who makes the unusual decision to take her older ex-husband out of his Care Home and move him in with herself and her second husband. As you can probably imagine the dynamic between the three is not the easiest, it’s not always plain-sailing, but they reach a unique kind of harmony…
1) The first thing we want to ask you about is the gap between Friday Evening (2006) and African Violet (2020). We’d be really interested to learn about the difficulties of getting a second feature made, how you found the funding and what you were doing in between the two films.
I got to say that my first film, despite being a success both in Iran and in international festivals, still caused some restrictions for me. After all, it was a controversial subject and it was a bold movie, especially in those years. For this reason, when it was finished filming, it wasn’t easy obtaining licenses for screening it and it caused extra sensitivity towards me. Not only was the film banned and they didn’t let us screen it, they also wouldn’t allow it to be distributed for home release. Even though it was successful and won international awards in festivals.
For this reason, there was extra sensitivity towards me because they wondered “what would my next subject be.” After all, that film was controversial and independent. And this sensitivity made every screenplay that I wrote and took to “Ershad” for approval (Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance in Iran, which restricts media that violates Islamic ethics) – they always found a reason to deny my license and they practically stopped me from making my next film. I thought what I needed to do was to just resist and continue doing what I love with the least amount of contact with government systems, because I knew it would be a dead-end for anything that I wanted to do.
I started working on some documentaries and for the budget, I gathered it around from here and there very privately and started making some documentaries, made a TV show, wrote three screenplays, all three of them were denied a license from “Ershad.” And this was for something like five years, each screenplay takes about one and a half years to be completed. To do research, and the writing itself. I produced a series of documentaries which was about ancient Assyrian ideologies. The other thing I did at that time was that I shifted my focus to photography and created a project for myself in those years that they practically didn’t let me work on cinema. “Ershad” wouldn’t approve my license, the facilities I could use to film a documentary were very limited.
I can say I worked 14 years on the story for African Violet which is – by the way – based on real events and it was going to be produced by Mr Shojanoori. We’re both independent producers and filmmakers and finding the budget from government sources is difficult for us. So, we had to fund it ourselves. It was difficult because of the US sanctions; many people failed to deliver on their promise, so we had to sell our house and our car and maybe even borrow some money just so that we could complete the movie debt-free and have a 100 percent independent film. And after it was finished, we wanted to screen it, but it was difficult in Iran, as it took three years until today, we have gotten to this point.
2) African Violet is based on a true story, is that right? Could you tell us about the real story and how you and your writer Hamidreza Bababeygi worked together to turn it into a feature film?
Yes, African Violet is the real story of the life of my second aunt and this event was an old event in our family and it was normal for us – we thought it was no problem if someone goes and takes their husband from a care facility and cares for them inside their house. Although his son was opposed to this, so when he returned from mecca on the same night, he, (my aunt’s former husband) passed away at the care house. And this is a normal but interesting story in our family. We’d always talk about how Aunt Shokooh is an interesting woman and we were very close and I thought it’s such a normal thing in many families. Can happen to anyone.
I had written a screenplay with Ms Naghme Samini, “The Bride”. which I forgot to mention before. This was one of the things I did between my last film and this one. It’s about an Israeli soldier wanting to marry a Palestinian girl in those Israeli housing projects. This was such a challenging project while being independent. There wasn’t supposed to be a bad guy in this; we were just trying to tell a story. For this reason, we couldn’t get government funding.
One day I went to Lavasaan over (my friend and producer) Mr Kiarostami’s tomb and I was thinking of many stories, but I couldn’t find the right one and I told him “why don’t you help me? I’m in a bad situation. I need some help.” Because whenever I needed help or ideas, I would go to him; and so, I told him “why you don’t help me find the one, none of them seem to work” – just thinking out loud with him. I returned to the car, we went there with Mr Shojanoori. In the car when I was returning, I started telling him about my stories with Mr Kiarostami, and he told me to tell the story again. And then told me “this is such a good story. Why don’t you make it?” This made me think about it and talk about it in my home and realize it could be a good idea.
I knew Mr. Bababeigi from another screenplay called Shanel and Mr Shojanoori produced it. So, I talked to him and we started working on it, as he liked the idea. I knew every little part about the story and everything, even Reza’s job – which is a carpenter, who was my aunt’s husband in real life. All this was reality for me, so I told him every little detail. He liked the story and he’d write it and whenever I saw that it wasn’t close to my version, I would tell him and we’d work on it so that it’d be perfect. That’s how we finished the African Violet screenplay.
3) We’d like to ask you about some of the other collaborators you worked with on the film, starting with the composer of the score. What kind of conversations did you have with him about the feel of the music you wanted?
I’ve known Peyman Yazdanian for a long time and you know him too surely, since he’s an international figure. I loved his music and was sure we were not to face any big challenges. The only thing I told Payman was… I sent him the screenplay and he fell in love with it and decided to work with it. I’m not a big supporter of “heavy” music, and don’t like movies filled to the brim with music or when the film score is too bold. I told Payman a few things and said that I love cello, first of all, since it’s an important instrument for me, along with piano and hand drums.
I wanted these three to be in the movie and wanted the three characters to have an instrument associated with them, and the instrument would become bolder once the story was about that character, a kind of identity associated with them. I didn’t want just a simple background music being made for this movie.
This was the discussion I had with Payman about the film score and then, I told him it should be like a breeze; a breeze that makes the viewer feel a good sentiment but shouldn’t know where it’s coming from exactly. It’s still a good feeling but not to the extent that his hair moves with this breeze. I think these explanations were enough for Payman because he didn’t record any etudes and directly recorded the pieces and showed me. I listened to them and fell in love. They didn’t even need to be edited.
4) Could you tell us about the location scouting, particularly for the house and courtyard that the three central characters live and work in? It’s almost like a fourth main character in the film.
Regarding the location, I can say that except for the south part of Iran, where we were sure we didn’t want the architecture, there wasn’t anywhere that we wouldn’t scout – Lavasaan, Broojerd, Delijan, Northern cities. And after all that, we found a house after a couple of visits which was actually a ruin with a yard like a forest. We couldn’t even get in, so one of us jumped over the wall to trim the forest and the trees so that we could at least open the door and find a way into the house. It was supposed to be leveled and turned into a parking lot. It had faded walls, cracks everywhere, the colour was a weird shade of green, it had nothing to offer but a ruin, not a yard, not even a bower.
But the location, as I’m sure you’ve figured out, the house itself was a character in the movie, not just a mere location. It was exactly what I pictured when I was writing the screenplay. A house with stairs and a yard and although my aunt wasn’t a dyer, I wanted the woman in the story to be associated with colours and cloths and similar things because it was important. The house provided this exact scenario. And the back of the house could provide a workplace.
Also it had two floors, as I exactly wanted it, Freydoon on one floor and them on another. The location was extraordinary, at the end of a dead-end street. Exactly how I pictured it. So we decided to work on this house – it took two and a half months to rebuild the house before we could start filming. They fixed the cracks, the wall colours. Even the balcony, no more than five people could go on there at once, otherwise it could’ve just fallen down.
So that location was practically “made”. The pool, the colours, the yard, the garden bower, the dying pot. All that had to be created. Even when we were filming, the crew were still working upstairs. I think it turned out such a good location, it turned to be such a good character.
5) The set design and costume design were done by the same person, is that right? I’m really impressed with the detail of the world building, on what was presumably a pretty small budget. How did you go about creating what feels like such an authentic world around this unusual family?
Yes, the scenic and fashion designer is the same person. Mr Abedini is a very old and respected makeup artist and scenic designer of Iranian cinema. Most of the things you see in that film are personal belongings of his; because he wanted everything to be worn-out and show signs of life; not that we just go and buy accessories just to be there. So, when we say the scene is designed, we mean that even the tablecloths are handmade by his own mother who has also passed away; even the curtains are handmade, the cups and everything. Fortunately he liked the movie and worked very passionately for it. The purple jacket that Shokooh is wearing was really her mother’s jacket. So everything looks real and made with passion.
6) Your central three actors in African Violet are incredible. Did you know who you wanted in the roles early on? What was the casting and rehearsal process like?
Regarding casting, two actors I was sure about, one was Mr Reza Babak as Freydoon and the other Ms Motamed Aria as Shokooh. They were obvious for me. Regarding Reza Saied Aghakhani, he was Ms Motamed Aria’s suggestion which after I saw them together, I realized it would be a perfect role.
Yes, we practiced together but it mostly happened in the scene. As I’m not very fond of meeting the actor in the office and practice there, because I like documentary cinema and my experience tells me that certain stuff happens at the scene; even the way you say your lines is affected. However much you practice before, you’re just making made up patterns and I do not like this format.
I like everything to be natural and in the moment. I think with the right casting, you’ve done most of the job and the rest can be made to happen at the scene easily. Although we did practice together just to find out their tone; after this was known, we left the rest of the practice for the scene and a day before the filming, we’d practice at the scene. It was mostly this way, before filming, in my opinion this works better in all the projects that I have done.
7) What were the differences between making your first and second feature? Did you use any lessons learned from the first experience?
Fourteen years of distance between my first and second movie changes everything. I had grown as a person and made new experiences in my life and I was more patient and thought deeper. My perspective changed, as did my attention to details. All these are differences between my first and second movie after 14 years. I like to think I am more experienced, and the thing that I like to think about my first movie and the second, is that I had done something in my second film that I don’t see in my first. What I tried to create in my second film is the moments of solitude of the characters. Something that I didn’t see in my first movie. It was more focused on subjects and actions. I tried to focus more on solitude on my second movie. That is a rough comparison of my two films.
Miss Haghighi’s comments were edited for content and clarity.
African Violet is available through select virtual cinemas. Read our full review here.