My Beloved Teachers

The Iranian director of Yalda, a Night for Forgiveness looks back on his cinematic journey, and the attempt to find closure with his new film.

As a teenager, I used to read a lot. Persian, French, American and especially Russian short stories and novels opened the doors to me of a huge imaginary realm called Literature. I had the happiest time in this imaginary heaven, while outside in the real world a violent, long war was going on, with numerous casualties. At that time, I dreamed of becoming a writer. But during university, to pay for my studies, I started to write film reviews and it was through classic films that my passionate love of cinema began.

In the ’80s and ’90s, video cassettes – just like many other Western products – were illegal and had to be smuggled into Iran. As a kid, I was lucky to see some works by Kurosawa, Chaplin, Tarkovsky, De Sica, Rossellini and Keaton on TV or in theaters, while two of my uncles who were studying cinema and theater took me and my brother to see films by other European filmmakers such as Parajanov, the Taviani brothers, Leone and Wajda. After the Iranian Revolution in 1979, recent Hollywood movies were banned due to cultural politics, as they were considered decadent by the revolutionaries, but luckily that led to some of the real masterpieces being shown on TV and in theaters, films with moral and familial issues criticizing American society, such as Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath or Kazan’s On the Waterfront, and silent classic like Chaplin’s The Great Dictator and Keaton’s The General. That was the best part of those restrictive politics! Later, as a young film critic, I discovered and studied works of giants like Ford and Hawks, Ozu, Kobayashi and Mizoguchi, Wilder, Hitchcock and Welles, Renoir, Carné, Cocteau, Clouzot, Buñuel, Bresson, Bergman, Melville, Antonioni, Godard and Fellini, among many other masters.

A Respectable Family

In 2012, after making a number of documentaries, I made my first feature film, A Respectable Family, the story of a traditional family told from the beginning of the ’80s, right after the revolution, through the painful eight years of war between Iran and Iraq, to 2009 and the vast protests against the reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Both in how I wrote and directed the film, I tried to be faithful to reality and tell my own story and the story of contemporary society of Iran. The film was nominated for Caméra d’Or at Cannes Film Festival in the Directors Fortnight section, and went on to have a successful festival run and be released in Europe and beyond. Nevertheless, it caused a huge anger among Iranian authorities and the conservative press, leading to it being banned in Iran after its Cannes screening, and me and my producer being sued. (This film is still banned today in Iran, and even though it was never released officially, a very low-quality pirate DVD was widely smuggled – just like those old VHS tapes when I was young.) I had a very tough time for years as a blacklisted director, judged and condemned as a traitor to the country, the revolution and the martyrs.

Over the years, I tried to understand why they reacted to my film like that. Because despite its severe sociopolitical critics, the film was made “legally” in Iran, having received all the necessary authorizations from the state for the script and for production. I found no answer. On a personal level, I tried very hard to see if I would be able to forgive the people who did this to me and my film. That’s why I wrote my new film Yalda, which has the central theme of forgiveness.

Behnaz Jafari in Yalda, a Night for Forgiveness.

As I was finishing editing A Respectable Family in 2012, I came up with a story about a woman convicted of killing her older husband. I had recently seen two documentaries about women who had murdered their husbands; they were considered criminals, while also being victims. I was so moved that I wanted to tell their story. I discovered later a reality show on Iranian television about forgiveness and decided to use it as a frame for my film. It was then that Yalda became a chamber drama in a reality show, using the unity of time and place.

Having written my script about forgiveness, I spent five years looking for producers in Iran and found out that no one wanted to invest in a film by a “troublemaker” blacklisted director. I really wanted to make Yalda with Iranian funding, because I was deeply upset about what had happened with my previous film, but instead Yalda became a coproduction between five countries. It ultimately took eight years to make the film, both because of the difficulty I had getting official permission to shoot a new film in Iran, and then also raising the funds. In that time, I rewrote the screenplay more than eight times!

Massoud Bakhshi (second right) directing Yalda, a Night for Forgiveness.

To me, Yalda is a film about media and justice, about culpability and punishment. And, above all, about judgment. What I lived after my first film, taught me that one cannot judge others without knowing them, even if the media is constantly doing exactly that and wants us to do the same. I learned also that one may forgive, but that it is wise not to forget what happened or why.

After making two fiction films, I am now finishing some documentaries that I started years ago, while also writing a new feature which blends fiction and reality. And I am still learning and reading.

These days, my best teachers are the silent-era directors. Whenever I feel depressed or tired of reading, I watch a silent film for therapy. Great silent comedies by Chaplin or Russian post-revolutionary masterpieces, German expressionism or Italian historical movies. A film that occupied my mind just before making A Respectable Family was Erich von Stroheim’s Greed. To me, it is one of the most modern movies of all time. Dealing with the issue of greed and corruption – which were also A Respectable Family’s key themes – von Stroheim’s film had a huge impact on me and is a permanent masterclass in storytelling.

The Phantom Carriage

Beside all of the films by the great Danish cineaste Carl Theodor Dreyer and the German master Fritz Lang, there is one film that I always enjoy watching over and over again: The Phantom Carriage by the Swedish director Victor Sjöström. It’s another rare, beautiful marriage between cinema and literature.

I don’t think an author chooses his or her subject, it’s more a case of the subject choosing the author. If you give two filmmakers the same subject, they will make two different films, each with their own vision of things. Social realism is very present in Iranian cinema because there are really amazing stories here, happening in our daily life, and the majority of young, creative Iranian filmmakers tell you their own story, almost becoming their own subject. As an Iranian filmmaker, I think the greatest teacher here is life itself, and I feel fortunate to live in an ancient, vast and rich culture, and during a very difficult but extremely dramatic moment of its history.

Born in Tehran, Iran, in 1972, Massoud Bakhshi has worked as film critic, scriptwriter and producer, before making 12 documentaries and short films which were awarded internationally. His first feature film, A Respectable Family, was selected at Cannes Film Festival 2012 (Quinzaine des réalisateurs). Yalda, a Night for Forgiveness, his second feature film, was selected at the Word Cinema Dramatic Competition Sundance Film Festival 2020, where it won the Grand Jury Prize for Drama, and at the 70th Berlin International Film Festival Generation 14+ Competition 2020. It is out now in virtual cinemas through Film Movement.