Iranian writer-director Sonia K. Hadad discusses crafting her nail-biting short film Exam, starring captivating up-and-comer Sadaf Asghari.
I first saw Sonia K. Hadad’s Iranian short film Exam in the cinema (remember those) in January, at the London Short Film Festival, where it captivated the entire room. There were audible gasps throughout this 15-minute wonder, as Hadad expertly ramped up the tension in the film to a breaking point. The film has won accolades at festivals across the globe, from Best Live Action Short at AFI Fest to Best Actress in a Short Film for Sadaf Asghari at Sundance.
While Exam is essentially a realist drama, it’s so nail-bitingly tense that it feels more like a horrific thriller — it even screened at the horror-centric Final Girls Berlin Film Festival, another festival I attended early in the year. Exam follows a teenage girl (the absorbing Asghari), whom we meet hurriedly cramming in some last-minute revision at the breakfast table, where her dad insists she deliver a packet of cocaine that morning. By the way she reacts — with casual annoyance as if he’s asked her to do the dishes — we can infer shepherding drugs to and fro is commonplace in her life. Things get complicated when the client doesn’t arrive, meaning she arrives at school with the drugs still in her bag.
“The story of Exam is a combination of my own personal experiences during high school and a true story that I heard from one of my friends,” Sonia K. Hadad explained to me. Hadad co-wrote the film with filmmaker Farnoosh Samadi. Hadad is an Iranian writer-director who moved to the US in 2013 for her education, which is where she began making short films, producing, and also editing TV series and shorts. Exam, her third short, is the work of an exciting emerging talent with a knack for precise editing and sound design that raises the heart rate of her rapt audience.
She’s also a brilliant director of actors, which is likely partly due to the fact that she trained as a theatre actor. “I believe that it had a significant impact,” she told me. “I used to work with theatre directors so I’m used to their style of working with actors. Theatre rehearsals take time. Personally, I prefer to work in that style. You get closer to the character.” Hadad’s lead actress, Sadaf Asghari, is a star on the rise in her own right (she was the lead of this year’s Sundance World Dramatic Prize winner, Yalda, A Night for Forgiveness). “She’s super smart,” Hadad gushed. “She doesn’t come from a professional acting background, but she is a genius. She’s not an actress you have to train or talk with a lot. She just got it right away.”
The centrepiece of Exam is a scene in a classroom: after Asghari’s character has set her pen down at the end of the exam, relieved that it’s over, the principal of the school arrives for a routine bag check. The tension rises as the principal gets closer and closer to our heroine, who tries and continually fails to think of a viable hiding place for the cocaine.
I asked Hadad how she built the sequence, expecting to hear that it was through intensive conversations with the DP, but I was surprised to hear that her editor was a primary collaborator during pre-production. “Before the shoot, I talked a lot with my editor, which helped me in terms of the découpage. I pre-découpaged all the scenes and shots a week before the shoot. It changed just a little [in the edit] but not a lot.”
This unconventional approach saved time in the edit, which took about 14 days to complete in full. Hadad explained that it took “maybe four or five days to make the first rough cut. It took another week to work on the details.” Those “details” actually included settling on an ending for the film, since Hadad had actually shot two possible versions. “We had two endings: one mine, and one my co-writer’s. We were always arguing for the ending during the editing. I shot the other ending, but during the editing, I decided that I like mine more, which is more open.” Showing the rough cut to her co-writer and two friends really helped her settle on the final version of the film.
The final masterstroke of the film’s editing is its sound design, which Hadad was very specific about, having written sounds into the original script. “I believe that some movies need music and some don’t,” she explained. “For my film, I was thinking that the tension of the film is enough. But I was thinking about the sound design.” She went into some detail about the sounds in the film’s final scene, which build up like a cacophony inside the main character’s head as she walks toward the camera. “There are sounds of construction going on around the school, banging and stuff like that. That was a real sound recorded by the mixer on set. I mixed this sound with her [Asghari’s] breathing. It was also mixed with the sound of the bell at school and students shouting at each other.”
Another sound highlight occurs at the film’s tensest moment, at the end of the classroom scene when the protagonist’s stress and fear is at its most unbearable: Hadad subtly augments the suspense of this moment with a simple, tinny ringing sound that rises in pitch. She explained the choice to me: “It was my own experience that whenever I’m stressed out, and my heart is beating really fast, I feel that I cannot hear anything anymore. It rarely happens because it needs a lot of tension to make you feel like that. I wanted to add this feeling to that moment when she’s [the main character is] like ‘Oh, fuck.’ The rate of stress goes higher and higher, and she cannot hear anything but that sound of thoughts in her head.”
When I asked Hadad what she learned from making Exam that she will take with her to future projects, she stressed the importance of collaboration. “I realised I should work with people I really like. Sometimes, you want to work with a person who is really good and famous and professional, but you can’t communicate with them. You don’t have any chemistry. This time, I tried my best to choose a cast and crew that I really liked and can communicate with. It really worked out. For the next project, I’m going to do the same. Film production is serious: you can’t go back and shoot it again. It’s a lot of money.”
So what are those next projects? “I’m working on my next short. I’ve finished the script, but I’m not sure about a date of the shoot because of the pandemic. It’s really risky. So I’m waiting to see what I can do, how I can gather people. Then I’m working on my [first] feature film’s plot, which I’m planning to shoot hopefully next spring.”
Exam will be screening soon at Odense International Film Festival on August 25th at 12 pm, August 26th at 3:30 pm, August 27th at 5 pm and August 28th at 8:45 pm.