Directed by: #SoniaKHadad
Written by: Sonia K. Hadad and #FarnooshSamadi
Ever had something in your school bag you shouldn’t have?
Chewing gum? firecrackers? pet snake? How about an eightball of cocaine that you’ve been forced to take to school on the day of a critical exam?
Sonia K. Hadad’s simplistic thriller is that universal anxiety expertly wielded to tell a story that both gets hearts palpitating but also offers a delicate look into Iranian customs. Our main character, a hard-working but suffering student portrayed brilliantly by Sadaf Asgari is studying for an important exam when her drug-dealing father coerces her into being a mule for a handoff. Running late and the buyer nowhere in sight, this student is forced to go to school and complete her exam while still in possession of the small package of cocaine and just as it seems everything is under control, a teacher announces a surprise bag check. The brilliance to Hadad’s direction and script, co-written by Farnoosh Samadi is how inclusive this story feels to the audience despite the specifics of the story. The anxieties of the student are relative to the drugs but exam stress, familial pressure, being late, being caught out are all fears we’ve had, especially in school.
It’s during this bag check that Exam transforms into a nail-biting ordeal as Hadad really flexes her directorial skills in a multilayered sequence elevated by subtext, editing and performance. This teacher brought to life in such a chilling manner as she slowly goes bag to bag working our way up to our main character while she subtly tries to open her bag and hide the incriminating package. Hadad and editor Ehsan Vaseghi ratchet this tension up piece by piece not just by cutting to quick shots of hands scrambling at bag clasps or Asgari’s uneasy expressions. Though Asgari’s skill in telling this character’s emotional journey through minimal dialogue especially the later physical elements is really impressive. Vaseghi’s work in creating tension through the slow buildup of this teacher working her way through the room is delightfully agitating with how each search informs the culture.
Exam focuses on globally relatable ideas and themes through a specific lens and the lens is a young woman’s place in contemporary Iran. As phones and perfume are plucked from bags with looks of contempt and soft giggles, it's not until a pair of hair straighteners are pulled from a bag that a real shift is felt. Remember the question at the beginning, phones, perfume, hair straighteners all things that would seem normal to have, nothing dangerous and mostly objects one would expect to find in a woman’s bag but Hadad makes it clear that in Iran it is a different story. If mundane objects such as these are inspiring such tension and vitriol what will happen if the drugs are discovered? The danger and desperation our character finds herself in becomes more engrossing as the stakes are subtly raised through this backdrop of these customs.
With stunning performances, direction, and editing which is all enhanced with Alireza Barazandeh’s terrific cinematography, Exam is a gripping film which finds great thematic depth in its narrative simplicity. Hadad doesn’t make a definitive statement in the end, no damning message about drugs or how Iran regards women but lets her character’s experience both ubiquitous and specific be reflective upon the audience. The terror, the tension, the painful aftermath, all of it a reality that is lived in and Hadad’s direction has us live through it as well, making us meditate of all these little moments that lead us there and what could happen next.