Massoud Bakhshi premiered his dramatic feature Yalda, a Night for Forgiveness at the Sundance International Film Festival this year. However, he was unfortunately unable to attend due to the rising tensions between the US and Iran. Yalda, a Night for Forgiveness details a woman named Maryam who murders her husband, and is put on trial in the form of a televised reality show where the victim’s daughter, Mona, decides her fate. It premiered to both intriguing and critical accolades, and went on to win this year’s World Cinema Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic at the festival. Massoud Bakhshi agreed to an email interview with That Shelf.
The following has been edited for clarity.
Wilson Kwong: Before the film screened at Sundance, how did you think audiences would react to it?
Massoud Bakhshi: I had no idea, but as I developed the script in four international platforms including Torino Film Lab and the Sundance Screenwriters Lab, I was confident with my story and my strong connection, and my need to telling this story now.
What is this film most critical of in terms of the culture or law in Iran?
In each film I make, I put a mirror in front of my society and my people, so we can recognize some of our hidden beliefs and our forgotten dark side. To me, this film is a portrait of my society in which the gap between poor and rich is increasing. This is also universal, where a rich minority takes everything and the majority of the world’s inhabitants struggle to have a minimum. At the same time, the film is critical towards the media and the way they use and manipulate individuals. Here [in the film], it’s for a good intention, but nevertheless, manipulation is the quintessence of every media – especially television.
Your first film, A Respectable Family was banned in Iran, but you still chose to film Yalda, a Night for Forgiveness in Iran. Did you encounter a lot of obstacles during the shoot?
I insisted to shoot Yalda in my country because it’s an Iranian story happening in today’s Iran. I chose to film in the Persian language and with an Iranian cast. It was hard to imagine doing this film elsewhere. I’m happy and thankful to my producers who agreed to shoot the film in Iran. Regarding any problems during shooting, we had no particular obstacles. It was before shooting that I had to wait a long time to get the necessary permissions. I could not find any finances for the film either. But the reasons are clear. My first film was banned there and no one wanted to work with a blacklisted director!
I know that the film is based on real events, but many viewers (especially from North America) will likely assume much of this is fictional. Can you give readers a sense of how common in Iran are the events we see in the film?
I can say 98 percent. For Iranian audiences, this is a kind of a copy and paste reconstruction of the real show with the added backstage scenes. I changed or exaggerated a few things, but the soul and structure of the show is the same.
Both actresses were amazing in this film, but they were also portraying characters that a lot of people in Iran will be able to relate to personally. Because of this, did they feel a lot of pressure being in these roles?
Well, not really. They are very good actresses. Each of them had a role model for their character in the real life. Sadaf Asgari (the lead actress) is coming from a very popular district of Tehran and had a hard life, so she used to know these stories. I sent her to courts to attend the process of criminals to see how it goes. For Behnaz Jafari (who plays Mona), it was a bit different. She told me about one of her friends, a rich daughter who seriously opposed her father’s second marriage with a young wife. They both took elements of reality into their performances.
Do you always have a specific political or social statement in mind when making a film? It certainly feels that way, and the message comes through very loud and clear.
I really try to avoid giving messages as I believe cinema is not a journal or preaching house, and I am not a preacher! I don’t like politics, either. Instead, in my daily life, I hunt for true anecdotes and I keep some real images in my mind. I develop my films around these images and these smaller true stories. It’s hard to be detached from the reality here.
Yalda, a Night for Forgiveness will also be screening at the Berlin International Film Festival next month.
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