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Interview: Massoud Bakhshi Talks Creating ‘Yalda, a Night for Forgiveness’

Yalda, a Night for Forgiveness debuted at this year’s Sundance Film Festival to thunderous applause. The film was among 11 other high caliber entries in the World Cinema Dramatic competition. Iranian filmmaker Massoud Bakhshi’s sociopolitical tale of a woman’s fight for survival is one of the most engaging experiences anyone can have in a theater this year. This was felt throughout the festival – for after a week of screenings, Yalda was awarded the highest honor of the Grand Jury Prize in its competing category. 

The film follows Maryam (Sadaf Asgari), a 22-year-old who must plead for her life on national television in Iran. Under Islamic law, women who are found guilty of murdering their husbands are sentenced to death. Their only lifeline is forgiveness from the family of the deceased. Naturally, asking for this favor is already tedious, but adding a studio audience makes it harder. Yalda is based on real televised variety programs, in which people literally beg for their lives by exercising this lifeline, aired in Iran. Writer and director Bakhshi adds another layer by setting his story on Yalda, the Iranian winter solstice celebration which takes place on the longest night of the year.

As proclaimed in our 5-star review (which you can read here), Yalda is truly a riveting masterpiece. Asgari as Maryam and Behnaz Jafari as Mona, the daughter of the deceased husband, lead the film with grace. It is amazing that the film is getting the recognition that it deserves. Unfortunately, Bakhshi could not travel to attend Sundance and accept his award due to current relations between the U.S. and Iran. Thankfully, we were still able to get in contact with him and ask him a few questions to further enlighten audiences on his powerhouse of a film.

Massoud Bakhshi, director of Yalda, a Night for Forgiveness, an official selection of the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Q: This concept is very taboo to many audiences, especially in western culture, can you talk about your personal experience growing up in Iran exposed to these real-world programs? Just how normal is this in every day Iranian life?

Massoud Bakhshi: Generally speaking, I don’t watch TV. Except maybe for news. While working on the script, a friend of mine asked me to see this TV show which had forgiveness as the main subject. When I saw one specific episode of this program in which an invited father who had lost his son in a street fight announced that he cannot forgive the killer of his son, I was so shocked that I decided to tell the story of my character in the frame of this show. I learned later that this show is very popular in Iran and I asked myself how can people watch and enjoy such a painful thing, even if it’s in the name of forgiveness and eventually can save the life of some convicted persons?

Q: What creative liberties did you take when creating the fictional variety show in the film? How much of that is taken from the real programs? 

MB: The notion, the idea, and the form are the same, and I changed very little things to have my original show. Many people did not like the film in its only screening here because it’s so similar to this show that they could not recognize the differences! I think they did get neither the critical approach of my film and its pity. 

Q: Many might walk away from the film with a negative look on Iran, what is it that you honestly hope viewers (both from inside and outside of Iran) take away from Yalda?

MB: I never think about the feeling of audience after watching my film, as I’m mainly concerned about the authenticity of my character and her or his life. To me, it’s more important to reflect a true and honest image of your society, even if there will be always some people who dislike it. I have never been a favorite filmmaker of audience, and I don’t want to be. It’s extremely difficult though and that’s why I made only two fiction films over the past 13 years. 

I hope Yalda invites its audience to think about the universal gap between poor and rich, to ask about justice and judgment, and to question the media and its huge impact on our lives and our minds. 

Sadaf Asgari appears in Yalda, a Night for Forgiveness by Massoud Bakhshi, an official selection of the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Q: Behnaz Jafari and Sadaf Asgari are the fantastic anchors of the film, can you talk about how they got involved and if it was difficult to cast a film possibly deemed too risky?

MB: I rehearsed with Sadaf and her mother (Fereshteh Sadr Orafaiee) for a month. We rehearsed a lot of backstories for these characters. Behnaz joined us later, but she discovered the deeper sides of Mona quite soon and performed her amazingly.

Q: You spent a lot of time researching real female inmates in a maternity ward not far from the capital of Tehran, can you further elaborate on how that process went? 

MB: Normally, men are not allowed to visit a maternity, especially the women prisoners ward. But I found a way through my doctor cousin who was working there and during several visits I took photographs and interviewed some people. Later, I asked my cousin to read the script and to tell me if my story about switching babies at birth is authentic, and she reassured me by saying that there are far more bitter stories than mine in reality. 

Q: The pacing is so brisk that I barely felt the runtime go by. How much was cut out or changed in the editing process, any problems arise?

MB: The rhythm question was essential and worked a lot in the script’s several re-writings. But the editing process was also very definitive. Jacques Comets edited also my first film and we know each other very well. He came to Tehran for my shooting and started editing the film simultaneously. Then we continued the editing in Paris for two months. I think he’s a master editor and understood very well the feeling and the tone of the film. 

A still from Yalda, a Night for Forgiveness by Massoud Bakhshi, an official selection of the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Q: Your first feature film, A Respectable Family, although selected for the Cannes Film Festival in 2012 could not gain permission from the Iranian government to screen in your home country. Does it look like Yalda will also share this fate and if so how does that motivate or affect you as a filmmaker?

MB: I will try my best to find a way to release Yalda in Iran, even if the release would be a limited one.

Q: You are a true documentarian with 12 docs under your belt. This benefits Yalda in the best way possible for sometimes it feels almost too real. What lessons or elements from documentary-style film making did you think were implemented if any at all? 

MB: I never film a fiction in which I can not believe, and I always film a documentary just like a fiction film. It’s all about the truth and the way you look for it, in fiction or in a documentary. I told my cast and crew from the beginning that we’ll shoot a documentary with a script and some actors. 

Q: Finally, what is next in the works for you? 

MB: I have to finish three documentaries first. But I’ll try to shoot a fiction as soon as possible.

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