Mona Zandi Haghighi was born on October 20, 1972 in Tehran, Iran. She studied Interior Design at Tehran University. She edited a book composed of letters and children drawings after Bam’s earthquake. She is a Writer, Director, Producer and Editor of short films, documentaries and feature films. Her first feature, On A Friday Afternoon won Grand Jury Prize and INALCO Special Mention at 13th Vesoul IFFAC in 2007. African Violet is her second long feature.
On the occasion of “African Violet” screening at the 25th Vesoul International Film Festival of Asian Cinemas, where it won the Audience award for Best Fiction Feature and the High School Jury Award, we speak with her about her absence from feature films, divorce in Iran, Shokoo, the previous and the current generation, and many other topics
Your previous feature film was screened 12 years ago. Why did it take you so long to shoot the next?
My first movie was 13 years ago, and that movie was about a girl who was raped by her paternal uncle; so after the release of my movie it was banned for about 5 years and I couldn’t show it anywhere. It was only at 5 or 6 international film festivals but then they banned it again also for foreign film festivals. Then I wrote some scenarios and took them to the government, to the censor board, but they didn’t let me make another movie. They thought if I wanted to make a new movie, I would have shown another big taboo about our country and they didn’t like that. They wouldn’t want me to show a taboo of our country.
So, after that, I started to make many, many documentaries because I love documentaries and I used to work many years ago in documentaries. In 13 years, I made many documentaries about Ashura, I don’t know if you know about that, is an Islamic ceremony we perform in Iran and other Muslim countries (the Remembrance of Muharram, in the first month of the Islamic Calendar) and then I made a series of documentaries about it. Then I made a documentary in Germany about 3 generations of refugees from Iran and then, 2 years ago, I started thinking about this subject, based on a true story about my family. So, then I talked with my producer and a writer I knew very well and I started making this movie.
What is the situation with divorces in Iran, particularly for women?
Women can divorce, but some rules are very hard on women, some other rules are good for women, because if a woman doesn’t want to divorce, her husband cannot do it without her consensus. But sometimes when a woman wants to divorce her husband, it’s not very easy for her. It depends on the different situations, there isn’t one rule for everything. You cannot say divorce is difficult for women and easy for men. No, it depends on the case.
Can you explain us a bit the title? I know it is a flower, but how does it connect with the movie?
The African Violet is a very sensitive flower, if you know it you can understand what I mean.
Yes, I’ve heard it needs water, but if you give it too much water it dies…
Yes, it is very sensitive, but if you take good care of it, if you put it in a good environment, with water, good weather and light, it gives an abundance of beautiful flowers. This plant is like my character Shokoo because she is a very powerful woman but also very sensitive; she loves everybody, but her feelings are very delicate. Like the plant, if the situation is good for her she can tolerate everything in her life and she can help others, in that good day. And that is the point, when you put the violet in a good situation everybody can enjoy the flowers.
I was very impressed by the poster of the movie with the protagonist laying on the colourful carpets. How did you come up with the idea?
That material is a wool that is used to make carpets. She colours the wool to make her carpet and there is a variety of colours, yellow, red, blue, and this is like Shokoo, you can see she has many different contrasting aspects in her character. She is kind, she is jealous, she is powerful, she is loving and all these colours complement her character, like the colours of the carpet.
And would you say that Shokoo is the typical Iranian woman, or not?
No, she’s not. She is a special woman for Iran, actually I think in the whole world, not just in Iran. Because when you are powerful, and successful and you want to do something you really like, everybody is going to try to stop you because society doesn’t want to see somebody doing anything they want, going against the rules and the social normality. So, I think Shokoo is not a regular woman.
Why does she decide to bring the ex-husband at home, since she knows that that will make her husband upset?
Because she didn’t like the idea of her ex-husband going to an old people’s home. In Iran, old people homes are not very good for elderly people and we don’t like to put our elders in those.
It’s the same in Greece.
I think it’s the same everywhere, or maybe in the West is different. Then she finds out that her children had put her ex-husband in the home and she doesn’t like that, and she shares this fact with her husband and they decide to take care of him in their house
But why do the children blame her for the divorce?
I think it’s because of the traditional culture in Iran that the children don’t like their parent divorced. Children like their parents being always in good terms, and in their case ,there is an extra reason to be angry, because it’s the mother that left the father, it was her that wanted to go, and they didn’t like this behaviour from her mother.
One of the funniest things in the movie for me is your depiction of the current husband, who is a bit “useless”, but also very kind and funny. Why did you decide to have him like that?
Because in Iran we have many, many nice men but we don’t like to show them. I don’t know why we like to show only very dogmatic, strict men. All my male friends are very kind, very supportive, very lovely and we couldn’t show them in cinema. I think it’s not fair because we have wonderful men in Iran and we should show them.
Can you give me some details about the casting?
I was sure about of the actor (Reza Babak) playing my main character Fereydoun, the old man, from the beginning, I wanted to work with him because I know he is a very famous actor but he doesn’t work often these days so I really wanted to show him in the film and remind everybody he is alive and a very nice person, to show that they you can still work with him. Why not? Because he is old? No, he is powerful and a very good actor. About Fatemah Motamed-Aria, she is very famous in Iran and the character is exactly the same as she is in real life.
And when I wrote this script with my writer, we both thought that Fatemah would have been a really good choice for this character. Then we started to look for the actor to play the younger husband, so Fatemah Motamed-Aria told us that Saeed Aghakhani would have been good for the part and that is why we talked to him
Their chemistry in the movie is really good, they really look like real husband and wife, how did you achieve this quality in their relationship?
I saw many couples like that, many relationships like theirs and I know them very well because I live like them. Personal experience.
In general, do you allow your actor to improvise or you are strict about the lines?
Of course, I allow them, I am not strict. I prefer to hear many things and ideas from actors, cinematographers, and the writer, because
I think it is very good for your story and better for your movie when you talk to each other and you hear many ideas from the others.
Can you tell me a bit about the location the movie is filmed? Particularly about the house.
Yes, the location is particularly important in this movie. It’s in the North of the country, in Amol, near the Caspian Sea. The house is very important; initially it wasn’t as you see it in the movie, we worked about 3 months making changes in the house. The original house was very old, not a luxury place, but very Oriental and traditional. It has a yard and many places for other people and guests. One place for Shokoo and her husband, one place for her ex-husband, they were all very important requirements for the house
Can you tell me about the co-operation with the cinematographer Farhad Saba?
Farhad Saba is a very professional cinematographer in Iran who now lives in Canada and works with Kiarostami, he is very famous in Iran. Also, he is old and he knows about this story and this kind of situations and he knows very well about lighting and camera movements and I really wanted to work with him. I called him in Canada and asked him to please come to Iran and work with me and he accepted.
Can you explain the issue with the young girl asking for help in the movie?
You know, in Iran there is a new generation of refugees, many young people want to go abroad, they don’t like to live in Iran, like the girl who went to Shokoo asking for help, to talk with her mother about the wedding and the young boy she wanted to marry.
Why didn’t her mother want her to marry him?
Because her mother is very dogmatic, the girl tells Shokoo she can’t talk with her mother because her mother doesn’t listen to her, like Shokoo’s children, they don’t listen to Shokoo, in a way it is an opposite situation. In Shokoo’s situation, she wants to talk with her children, but they don’t accept it, on the other hand the young girl wants to talk with her mother, but she doesn’t accept it, exactly the opposite situation.
Last question is about your future projects. Are you preparing a new movie?
Yes, I am. I am working on a script with my writer, Hamidreza Bababeygi, who also wrote “African Violet”. The story is set in Iran and is about a composer who lives on a big house and has many problems with people that live out of his house. It’s a very complicated story!
How do you think the industry in Iran will react to your movie?
In Iran, we have some festivals where the film will go and I think, in three or four months, the film will be released in cinemas and I hope we won’t have any problems.
Because of censorship?
Yes, you know, because there is one woman and two men … but I hope everything is going to be alright.
And more in general in the country? Is the government helping to produce movies?
Sometimes yes, sometimes no.
Did you receive any help?
No, of course not! They didn’t help me.