Farnoosh Samadi on her provocative new film, 180° Rule, which confronts the horrific consequences of robbing women of their agency. Read more coverage of the London Film Festival.
When I saw 180° Rule at TIFF, I knew I had to get in touch with writer-director Farnoosh Samadi and pick her brain about what I’d just watched. The film is a meticulously-crafted drama that devolves into a psychological thriller when tragedy strikes partway through. It’s a provocative film, and it’s already polarising critics, but I admire its boldness. I appreciated the film even more after I saw Michel Franco’s New Order at the festival, a film that tries to be provocative by showing grizzly violence, but only comes off as excessive and insulting. Take note, Franco: the complex and harrowing moral choices the protagonist in 180° Rule faces are far more provocative than any of the violence in New Order.
Samadi also co-wrote one of the best short films of the year, Exam, and like that film, 180° Rule is a story of a woman in Iran who suffers under the ever-increasing weight of a dangerous secret. “When I decided to make my first feature film, I thought of making a trilogy about lies, secrets, and their consequences in the lives of the people.” Samadi wrote to me over email. “This is the main idea of my short films, too, and it’s such an important concept to me.” In addition to her three shorts — The Silence (2016), Gaze (2017), and The Role (2018) — Samadi has co-written several films with acclaimed Iranian director Ali Asgari, including the feature film Disappearance (2017). Their latest collaboration, the short film Witness, screened alongside 180° Rule at the London Film Festival.
In 180° Rule, (which was loosely based on a true story that happened to a friend of hers), we follow school teacher Sara (Sahar Dolatshahi) leading up to and in the wake of a fateful decision: she chooses to defy her husband when he forbids her from going to a family member’s wedding. He was going to accompany Sara and their young daughter on the car journey to the wedding, which would take them out of Tehran and into the countryside. But when a work engagement comes up that clashes with the trip, he decides that if he isn’t going, then nobody is. Dolatshahi plays Sara as a woman who’s weary of patriarchal society but strong-willed all the same; it’s no surprise that she doesn’t take no for an answer. Instead, Sara says goodbye to her husband at the airport, and then drives to the wedding with her daughter, her husband none the wiser.
Samadi described to me the patriarchal society in Iran as “a society that is fighting between tradition and modernism. On one hand, a woman has rights such as working outside, driving, etc., and on the other hand, she needs her husband’s permission for a short trip.” This fight is dramatised through Sara, an opinionated woman who has freedom insofar as she has a job and a driver’s licence, but whose life is still somewhat dictated by her husband. Yes, Sara rebels against him by secretly defying his orders. But the joyful scenes of her enjoying the singing, dancing, and food at the wedding are a pitiful trade-off for the horror, shame, and guilt that follows the next morning. In fact, even in this fairly low-key section of the film, a taut thriller-esque score creates dread that prefigures the hardships Sara is about to face. Samadi told me, she “wanted the audience to feel the panic before discovering the reason.”
I’m skirting around talking about the pivotal plot development that comes 30 minutes into 180° Rule because it’s best you go into the film not knowing the specifics — all the better to experience the same shock and helplessness that Sara feels. “The pace of the film is something close to the reality of our lives,” Samadi wrote to me, elaborating on her decision to include this plot ‘twist’ and whether or not she wants to provoke her audience. “Everything changes very quickly and is chained to the force and regulations of our society… I knew it would be a shocking film from the start. Rewriting each of the key dramatic scenes, I would go through an awful emotional ride and would lose a complete working day before I could get back together. So I think it was obvious to me what it could do to the audience.”
Rather than suggesting that this ‘twist’ is some kind of cosmic punishment that Sara deserves for rebelling, Samadi uses it as an extreme setup through which to explore the horror of being a woman in a society that doesn’t respect your agency. It’s a tragic accident, but it happens at the wedding — if Sara hadn’t rebelled everything would be OK — so the rest of the film grapples with Sara’s responsibility for what happened in the eyes of those around her. The film isn’t too interested in asking whether Sara is at fault or not; she feels immense guilt, but, as her family reassures her, it’s nothing she could have foreseen. Instead, Samadi explores how a society that places moral responsibility on women to do as they’re told breeds shame and guilt and places unfair responsibility — both in the eyes of others and in the eyes of the law — on women.
“In a male-dominant world, us women are left with chests full of secrets and untold stories,” Samadi wrote to me. “It doesn’t end with Iran. In all male-dominant communities, women are under so much suppression and pressure.” This weight lies heavily on Sara throughout the last two acts of 180° Rule; Dolatshahi looks constantly ill and exhausted. Not only is Sara processing the tragedy, she’s also panicking over how to explain it to her husband who will undoubtedly blame her. She settles on an elaborate lie that she can only keep up so long. In Samadi’s words, “We [women] learn to lie because we can’t bear the consequences.” Some viewers may bristle at how extreme and perhaps even callous Sara’s lie is, but as Samadi told me, “We all act differently facing the same circumstances. We might behave strangely because we are raised in different cultures and with various mindsets, so morality may have numerous meanings for us.”
In order to critique patriarchal society writ large, Samadi decided to expand the story to include a parallel story to Sara’s: Sadaf, a pregnant student at Sara’s school, comes to Sara for confidential as Sadaf is afraid of how Sadaf’s family will react to the pregnancy. Like Sara, Sadaf finds herself in a dilemma with no good solution: either ask her family for help and be punished, or deal with it alone and risk harming herself.
Samadi explained, “The story of the young pregnant girl is [related to] the script I wrote for, Disappearance (2017) [directed and co-written by Ali Asgari]. I had the impulse to use my previously-made characters from my other films, so I added the pregnant young girl [to 180° Rule] and chained her story to Sara’s. Even this tiny parallel narration would be a moral challenge for the audience. Which one is right: to say or not to say? I personally love this sub-story. A part of this film is about the mothers and daughters in various ages and their problems in this society: Sara and Raha [Sara’s daughter], Sara and her mother, Sadaf and her mother.”
Farnoosh Samadi is by no means done telling bold and provocative stories about secrets and lies. In fact, she’s planning a trilogy. “When I decided to make my first feature film,” she explained, “I thought of making a trilogy about lies, secrets, and their consequences in the lives of the people. This is the main idea of my short films, too, and it’s such an important concept to me. The story of 180° Rule was long with me, and I thought it was a perfect first episode of the trilogy… Right now, I’m [working on] the next episode of this trilogy. This episode is a psychodrama with a male leading role who is keeping a secret which has enormous [consequences] in his life. The main plot is already done, and I am preparing to start the screenplay.”