'Yalda, a Night for Forgiveness': An interview with Iranian filmmaker Massoud Bakhshi

There are so many threads, themes and ideas bursting through Massoud Bakhshi’s stunning Yalda, a Night for Forgiveness that it would take a book to discuss them all. But within the limits of this piece, let's start off by saying that the film absolutely deserved to win the 2020 World Cinema Dramatic Competition Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, where it premiered.
'Yalda, a Night for Forgiveness': An interview with Iranian filmmaker Massoud Bakhshi

The first shots of Massoud's Bakhshi’s Yalda, A Night for Forgiveness, his second narrative feature film after A Respectable Family which screened in Cannes in 2012, reminded me of a cross between Carlos Reygadas and Michael Bay in their universal, yet completely opposite world cinema outlook. Those areal views of Tehran at night, which included the iconic Milad Tower for immediate location context, followed by an interior shot of a group of women, one among them being unshackled from her handcuffs, were enough to tickle my curiosity. And the film never disappoints, it doesn’t allow for even a moment’s distraction, it is spellbinding from the first shot to the last, with every twist and turn in between.

But while Reygadas does slow and sultry best, and Bay is an American action filmmaker, Bakhshi is something perfectly in between and utterly different. He doesn’t resort to tricks, manipulations and chases. His heroines’s heads are covered, they brandish cell phones in the place of weapons and the tragedies the filmmaker explores are about the clash between antiquated laws and a young society that struggles to keep up with the world around them. This story does take place in modern-day Iran after all and how much can we safely say we actually know about this intriguing, yet often misinterpreted country?

Iran. The country we know the least about yet judge the most in the West. Thankfully, sometimes that judgment is from the likes of a Sundance World Dramatic Competition jury, which was comprised of Saudi filmmaker Haifaa Al Mansour, Italian indie actress Alba Rohrwacher and Brazilian stage, TV and movie star Wagner Moura which awarded Yalda the top prize.

Behnaz Jafari as Mona
Behnaz Jafari as Mona

Aided by his incredible actresses — which include Behnaz Jafari in the role of Mona and Sadaf Asgari as Maryam — Bakhshi weaves an intriguing tale based on the meaning, and motivations of forgiveness, which he tells onscreen like a good thriller. Within a perfectly entertaining structure, he finds a way to introduce his audience to several contradictions of modern-day Iran. Concepts like temporary marriages (“sigheh”) which exist in Islam as a way to justify short term relationships of convenience, the Sharia law concept of “an eye for an eye” and blood money as well as the Zoroastrian celebration of Yalda, which gives the film its title, are exposed without being overly explained and give the audience something to look into — a little learning to go with their entertainment. And a way to keep the stunning images, that will haunt them long after watching this film, alive.

And while watching this reality show that is the central set up for Yalda we may find ourselves rooting either for Maryam — the young girl who was basically forced into this marriage of convenience by her family and her employer/husband, who she then murdered by accident. Or Mona, the older, strong-willed beautiful only daughter of the dead man, who once took in Maryam as both a friend and employee but now holds her fate in her hands. Or even the other important female characters that end up changing the story completely in twists that happen right in front of our eyes. One thing we can all agree on is that Yalda, a Night for Forgiveness feels like the perfect film.

Following is a short interview with Massoud Bakhshi, from early 2020.

Filmmaker Massoud Bakhshi
Filmmaker Massoud Bakhshi

What was the inspiration for this film? Was it drawn from real life?

The first inspiration came from several documentaries about women convicted for murdering their husbands. Then I started my research which became wider about murder cases and also this law that allows forgiveness. And then I watched a reality show about the subject which was so shocking that I decided to tell the whole story through the frame of a reality show around forgiveness.

I try not to know anything about a film when I watch it. And throughout yours, I kept thinking this was a woman filmmaker’s work. How did you manage to find such perfect women’s voices within your script and realization of your film?

I think we don't have women’s film or men’s film, we have only good films or bad ones. I think all of my films are somehow about women. Because women are more beautiful, dramatic and complicated than men. During the writing of Yalda I had to develop at least 10 female characters in the script and I really tried to know each one of them. That was a very difficult and at the same time wonderful experience. And during the shooting, the actresses brought a lot from their personal life into their performances. I think if the women's voices are strong in the film, it's also thanks to their contribution and devotion.          

Would you be able to show the film in Iran and if you have/will what do you expect, or what was the reception?

I will definitely try my best to screen the film in my country, even if there is an extremely difficult and competitive situation here in which nepotism and commercial or propaganda cinema dominates the local film industry. I really hope that some younger people and students can see and discuss about this film in my country, because it is talking about very important issues prevalent in Iranian society today.          

How was it to go through Torino Film Lab and Sundance for this film? How did it help most?

It's always precious to re-write and craft your script, and these labs bring a fantastic chance to meet wonderful people and experts with different film cultures, backgrounds and tastes. To me personally, these platforms were so useful for learning new things about storytelling, but also to do networking and making new, great friends. While Torino Film Lab lets the participants know more about the cinema co-production and collaborations in Europe, Sundance screenwriting lab provides a deeper review and a new exploration into your script, benefiting and sharing the ideas of film professionals.

All images courtesy of Sundance, used with permission.

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