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“I have always been interested in exploring the dark and unusual corners of human life”

A conversation with Sonia K. Hadad

interview by Mariana Hristova

Iranian writer and filmmaker Sonia K. Hadad was born in 1989 in Tehran and was primarily educated in her native country, studying physics-mathematics, graphic design, literature, and theatre before pursuing a Film and Media Arts degree at Emerson College in Boston, USA. Having published short stories still as a child, Sonia combines her passion for writing with a vivid interest in film and video art which is already apparent in her first student short, ‘The Box’ (2016), standing aesthetically on the verge of theatre monologue and video performance. Her next work, ‘Personal’ (2017), examines the issue of violated privacy in an era of viral exposure, while ‘Exam´ (2019) subtly tackles the topic of family oppression in Iranian society, the latter winning over fifty awards, including Sundance’s Best Actress Award, and the American Film Institute 2019’s Best Live Action Short award, which qualified the film for the Oscars. Hadad’s most recent short film, ‘File’ (2022), digs further into the family matters by revealing a child abuse case.

We talked to Sonia about ‘File’, which, was part of The Norwegian Short Film Festival’s international competition earlier this week, and, just like her previous two shorts, combines accurately paced tension in the film’s rhythm, emblematic of mainstream North American films, with a delicate dramaturgy of little details, a core characteristic of Iranian minimalist cinema. Besides this elaborated cinematic structure, which makes the film extra intriguing, what is particularly poignant about ‘File’, and Sonia’s cinema at large, are the unspoken layers of meanings that lurk under the plot’s surface — these might, however, not always be fully understood to those unfamiliar with the context in which the works were conceived. Still, the films provoke a tickling feeling about the existence of such a hidden subtext, something that makes the cinematic experience all the more exciting and also fosters further investigation. During our conversation, Sonia discloses crucial characteristics of the social environment that inspired her work until now, providing the opportunity for more interpretation(s).

Mariana Hristova: ‘File’ is a perplexing and ambiguous film. While it deals with child abuse, it also implies that structural institutional intervention might not be the best solution. What inspired you to make a film on the subject?
Sonia K. Hadad: It’s a true story that I learned from my aunt. She used to be a school teacher, and after she retired, she worked in the kind of check-up institution that you see in the film, where they test children before entering school. The story she told me was much more dramatic, more criminal. However, I did not want to focus on what happened but instead preferred to turn the camera and show the weakness of legal protection for children in Iran.

Islamic law does not make provision to punish abusive parents, even in case of murder. The father is considered the owner of the child, and if he kills it, the most he could get would be a couple of years in jail. Namely, the issue with child abuse usually lies in this absence of proper legal restrictions. Nothing can be legally done unless the mother took the father to court. It’s not a much-discussed issue either; only the most striking cases come out. There was a case of a filmmaker who disappeared, and later on, he was found cut into pieces – his parents did it, it turned out. Afterward, they were sentenced to only eight years in jail because it was their son, even though he was an adult. Let alone the rape cases within a family, which are rarely noticed at all. Of course, these things happen all around the world. It’s not just about my country and society; those stories are covered here because they are considered family matters.

This internal context might not be clear to an external viewer. Why have you decided then not to imply clearly that the father might be behind the child’s abuse?
Hadad: I wanted to accentuate the mother and the child but did not want to specify directly that the father is the abuser nor to clarify what is going on exactly. My idea was to create suspense by leaving the conflict in obscurity so that the audience thinks further and trains their imagination. The film has an open ending, and one keeps fantasising about what happens next and what might have happened during the screen time but away from their sight.

— ‘File’ (Sonia K. Hadad, 2022)

You also invite spectators to sympathise with all characters eventually – with the mother who might not be doing anything wrong, with the civil servant who is trying to do her job best, and with the kid who is in the most challenging position to choose between salvation and living with his mum.
Hadad: True. Everyone is hiding something, and everything is confusing. No one could come out clean and happy from this situation, whatever its resolution is.

In terms of storytelling, your previous short films also hold a secret, a mystery to be revealed. Why are you repeating this approach?

Hadad: I like mystery and have always been interested in exploring the dark and unusual corners and situations of human life. This way, I can discover the underlying causes and address the themes of injustice and transformation. Creating an enigma is very important for me – perhaps, I was tempted by Krzysztof Kieślowski whose cinema I like a lot. The subtext has always intrigued me. Being puzzled is also quite exciting.

The aesthetics of your films are puzzling too. Visually they correspond with the Iranian cinematic tradition, but in terms of structure, they are closer to the American style of filmmaking.
Hadad: This is due to the mixture between my cultural background and the education I received in the United States. The stories I interpret on screen come from my native environment, which I know best, and are inspired by our society. It’s a complicated culture, not as straightforward as Western thought. That's our Asian nature: social, political, and existential dramas and serious dilemmas accompany our lives. We have gone through lots of things. I am in my thirties, a representative of the post-war generation, and have already experienced several revolutions. But I learned the technical side and the taste of filmmaking in Boston, where I started with cinema from scratch. Production-wise, I am a huge fan of American independent cinema.

‘Exam’ seems to be your most successful film, especially in the United States. How did you develop this peculiar story of a schoolgirl transferring cocaine into her bag?
Hadad: It is also based on actual events I heard from friends but happened in a boys’ school. I chose to transfer the plot to a girls’ environment since I have experienced that; I hoped to recreate the atmosphere more authentically. The sequence with the teachers checking the girls’ bags after the exam randomly happened in my class; those are real ‘ingredients’. I narrated someone else’s story through the path I had walked. The broader context behind this film is also related to family affairs and child abuse – a father is using his daughter to do something illegal for him, and she cannot resist. And again, I did not want to show him. The point was to portray the all-encompassing patriarchal pressure on the girl through her character. Her father’s face was not needed, only his demanding voice. The school further pressures her under the patriarchal influence, although all teachers and principals are women. Their abusive behaviour towards young girls symbolises the effect of the high authority on female minds.

I now realise that in both ‘File’ and ‘Exam’, you can sense a certain power in the shadows. Women are positioned at the front line while men control from behind without dealing with problems directly. Only in ‘Personal’ do we see the abuser instantly, but he does not admit he did something wrong.
Hadad: That one was not based on a story in Iran. I read about a girl who ended up topless on the internet without her consent, desperately tried to sue the people who exposed her, and ultimately committed suicide —something that happened in Italy, not Iran. So, I thought that certain issues are not about systems and governments; it’s about people who ruin each other. I am constantly drawn to matters related to human relationships. My experience as a human being is that we always deal with suffering in our social and emotional interactions, despite the advancements in science and media.

In all three films we are discussing, the characters are women suffering from patriarchy, but they are not feminist rebellions or activists. Why is that?
Hadad: I am a feminist, but I don’t think all problems come from patriarchy. Women should also do something about treating each other better – I have observed failures in this aspect within the various societies I lived in. Whenever I decide to do something, I do it, and cannot blame any man in case I fail. Of course, it depends on the situation, society, and personal viewpoint towards the world; I know that. Each woman’s approach is different. But gender division is too much. Otherwise, we victimise ourselves and do not take responsibility for our own actions. That’s my ideology.

Are you currently working on new projects?
Hadad: For the last two years, I have worked as the creative director of an advertising agency in Iran, where we shoot many audiovisual commercials. But besides my day job, I am working on my next short film based on a story I wrote at the beginning of the pandemic. Children are involved again, but the genre differs from the films I used to make. It will be a kind of psychological thriller with some aspects of a horror flick. I am also developing a guerilla-style independent psycho-thriller feature that is again female-centred. If everything goes well, I will be ready with the short in two-three months. The feature, however, will take more time. They are both situated in Iran as well. I still don’t have working titles for them – that’s the last thing I come up with when making a film. Besides that, I also have ideas for two other short films that I would like to shoot in the United States.

So, you will continue with the short form even after completing your first feature.
Hadad: Of course, I love making shorts; they are closer to artwork and can be way more conceptual. The medium is entirely different. It’s about a specific situation or atmosphere, like writing a short story. Acclaimed feature film directors keep doing great short films – I am now thinking about ‘NIMIC’ by Yorgos Lanthimos, which I really enjoyed.