Director Sonia K. Hadad Discusses Exam

Exam is an Iranian film following the day of a schoolgirl who has an important exam to sit. However, when she’s given a small package of drugs to deliver, her whole day changes.

The whole short had me on the edge of my seat, not knowing if things were going to go right or terribly wrong. You can see why the film has garnered numerous awards at festivals around the world, as it’s something that could happen to anyone from any background. I felt sick like the schoolgirl, played by Sadaf Asghari, who did an amazing job at earning the audiences respect and love through her emotional performance, really giving everything to this difficult role.

Co-written and directed by Sonia K. Hadad, Exam doesn’t romanticise drugs and the world around it like some films do, but instead looks at how damaging it is.

First, I’d really love to know where the original idea stemmed from, and if what you thought up was what we saw on our screens in the final edit.

I always wanted to illustrate the experiences I had faced during studying at high school. For me, going to school was all about restrictions, suppression, and stress. In the movie, the school’s atmosphere was a reflection or metaphor of a controlled society and cultural crash, in which you could see the social failures’ symbols in the movie! Once when I came across the real story about drug dealing at high school, I decided to recreate the situation and the actual characters. Exam’s story is a combination of my personal experiences at high school and a true story I had heard from one of my friends. I mixed these two to write the script. The image I had built in my mind and the story’s atmosphere I had constructed was exactly the same thing you see on screen.

The film is co-written with filmmaker Farnoosh Samadi. What was it like writing and working together to bring your idea to life?

For a year I was thinking about the idea I had in my mind, which the whole idea was about the school girl, swallowing drug and the general hard restrictions at school. I wrote the first draft of the script, me and Farnoosh reviewed the script together, talked and discussed about the scenes and dialogues and after couple of days I finished the last draft. Nevertheless, I changed some dialogues, sequences and shots on set and during the shoot.

Being an Iranian short film, do you think it speaks about the drug use in the country or was that not specifically what you wanted to tackle?

The movie’s narrative and the general story tell about a teenage girl, her sufferings with her family, and the limited social environment and challenging conditions. Nevertheless, the main story’s discourse and the subtext are about economic problems and the constrained and controlled social environment, and the pressured educational system.

Sadaf Asghari, who plays the schoolgirl, goes through a lot in the film, especially physically. How did you work with her to build this character and show what she endures?

About three years ago, I saw Sadaf Asgari in a feature movie called: Disappearance, and I was amazed by her brilliant performance in that movie. When I finished the Exam’s script, I was looking for a good actress for this challenging role, and suddenly my co-writer (Farnoosh) suggested Sadaf and reminded me of her role in that feature movie. I watched the movie again, and it made me sure that she is the actress I wanted.

For all the scenes and in most of the sequences and shots, I explained to Sadaf the details of that characters’ physical/ emotional state, specifically for the restroom scenes and when the character is suffocating. Additionally, I was describing all the actions that were happening at that moment. For example, in the restroom scene, I explained everything I had in mind to her; step by step, I put the actions in order for her from inside the bathroom and behind the closed door until she fell to the ground. I described to her how a human body feels at the moment of suffocation. Moreover, we talked about the details of the moment of struggling. Fortunately, she was smart and able to play the role very well, which shows her high intelligence and exceptional ability to act.

The beautiful cinematography by Alireza Barazandeh and near monotone colour palette really add a grittiness to the final film. Was this a conscious choice, especially when looking at other films that dive into the world of drugs?

The monotone atmosphere, the minimal lighting, and the cold color palette were utterly intentional. I even tried to plan and set filming days in cloudy weather to create a cold low saturation atmosphere related to the story.

This is your third short film, and with the success it’s had so far, do you plan on delving more into the topics it looks at, or is something else up next for you?

“Social issues and human conditions” will be the main subject of my work for sure, but they will be constructed in different formats, spaces, and contexts.

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