By Ali Moosavi.
After only two feature films and a documentary, Massoud Bakhshi has come to the forefront of the Iranian directors. He started his filmmaking career with the faux documentary, Tehran Has No More Pomegrenates!/ Tehran Anar Nadarad (2007). On the surface, it was a nostalgic, amusing, comedy-musical portrait of Tehran. Beneath the surface however, it was a hard-hitting socialist-Marxist critique of the way the capitalist nature of the socio-economical structure of the Iranian society had not changed through the years, with successive regimes and governments.
Bakhshi fully revealed his political and social alliances five years later in his stunning feature film debut, the political thriller A Respectable Family /Yek Khanévadéh-e Mohtaram (2012). It told the story of Arash (Babak Hamidian), a young Iranian academic exile who returns home to teach a course at a university. His father, who is estranged from his mother, is critically ill and wishes to see him. His stepbrother Hamed (Mehrdad Sedighian) offers to be of assistance while he is in Iran. In flashbacks we see that his father gained his considerable wealth by illegally taking food designated for the needy and hoarding it. Now nearing his final days, he is full of remorse and has bequeathed his considerable wealth to Arash. There are, however, many twists and turns in the story which highlight the moral and financial corruption in Iran. A Respectable Family won the $100,000 first prize award at Abu Dhabi Film Festival but was met with a barrage of fierce criticism back in Iran, where it was banned from screening.
Bakhshi’s new film, Yalda, A Night for Forgiveness touches on the Islamic law of Ghesas or retribution which decrees that in murder cases, if the crime is limited to the family of the deceased and is not against a large group, or the government, the bereaved family can accept blood money from the condemned person and forgive him/her, who will then be set free or have his/her sentence commuted from execution to a few years imprisonment.
In the film, a TV program called The Joy of Forgiveness is dedicated to bringing both the murderer and a close relative of the murdered person to the TV studio and ask the latter to forgive the former. Those gathered in the studio include the condemned person, Maryam (Sadaf Asgari), a young girl who has murdered her much older husband; the deceased’s daughter Mona (Behnaz Jafari), who has to decide if she is going to forgive Maryam; and Maryam’s mother (Fereshteh Sadre Orafaiy), who’s there to ensure that her daughter toes the line and obtains forgiveness. Directing the TV show is Ayat (Babak Karimi, a regular in films of Asghar Farhadi). There are many twists and turns in the story that reaches almost unbearable tension and suspense.
Yalda, A Night for Forgiveness won the Grand Jury Prize in the World Cinema – Dramatic section of this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Film International caught up with Bakhshi in Normandy, France.
How did you start in the film industry?
I was a film critic first, and my first article was published when I was nineteen. Then I started making documentaries. In 2000 I went to Rome and enrolled in the New School of Cinema and Television.
Did you not have any language difficulties?
I knew French and English and managed to pick up Italian in a couple of months. This was a private institution set up by ex Cinecitta teachers. I told them that I had no money to pay the tuition fees, but had made films and showed them a couple of my documentaries. They liked them and offered me a scholarship on the condition that once a week I would show an Iranian film that I had liked for the students and discuss it with them. I spent a couple of terms there and wrote the script for Tehran Has No More Pomegrenates! But when I returned to Iran, it took me about five years to make that film. It was made in 2006 but not shown till 2009, in the middle of street demonstrations against the outcome of the Iranian presidential elections.
What issues regarding the film caused such delay? Was it using the voice of the late banned actor-director Nosrat Karimi for the narration?
No, it was petty things, and mostly to do with the content of the narration. For instance, they said that when the narrator talks about palm readers and fortune tellers, I show religious figures. Luckily the film was shown; it was the first documentary to get general screening in cinemas. It was very popular and became a cult movie. Its DVD sold 1.5 million copies for which, even though I was the film’s writer-director-producer, did not receive a cent. A French producer remarked to me that even Orson Wells didn’t sell that many DVDs!
For the Fajr Film Festival, I had to make cuts and changes in 40 places for it to be shown…. Since they only had two days, I just muffled the sound.”
Though it seemed to be a comedy-musical documentary, it was really a harsh socialist critic of the capitalist society in Iran. For example, you show two people who the narrator says both work in construction industry. One, born in London, builds towers and lives in a huge luxury apartment, while the other works in a brick factory and is jammed with his family in a tiny room. In another segment the narrator says, “The Merchants of Bazar, the King and the mullahs worked closely together.” I was surprised that, with such open criticism of the Iranian society, it was granted a public screening.
Well, for the Fajr Film Festival, I had to make cuts and changes in 40 places for it to be shown. I told them that it’s on 35mm film and will take time and cost a great deal to make the cuts. Since they only had two days, I just muffled the sound. During the screening the crowd cheered in the scenes where the sound was muted.
A Respectable Family remined me of the political thrillers of Francesco Rosi and Costa Gavras. Were they an inspiration for you?
Yes, I love Rosi. In Italy caught up with a few of his films that I had not seen. In Iran I had seen a few of his films, such as Hands Over the City (1963). As well as Costa-Gavras, to a lesser degree. Maybe because I went to Italy and Rosi deals specially well with issues regarding the south of Italy, which is very different to the north and Rome. I was also influenced by film noir and films of Jean-Pierre Melville. But the film that had occupied my mind just before making A Respectable Family was Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1924). It was a very grim film and belonged to the time when the American workers used to construct skyscrapers during the day and watch comedy movies in the evening. It was the silent era’s bleakest film. It seems to me one of the most modern movies of that era. Dealing with the issue of greed was also one of A Respectable Family‘s key themes, because before talking about corruption and such issues, we were discussing greed and von Stroheim’s film had a huge impact on me.
How did you construct the screenplay for A Respectable Family?
The script tells the story from a seven year old’s viewpoint, starting during war time and reaching the present day. There were also elements of my own memories of being in Tehran under the barrage of missiles during the war and that particular atmosphere. In the script re-writes I used the flashback device which, though is oft repeated in cinema and is somewhat hackneyed, I thought it could be effective here. I wanted to capture those painful images that exist in the protagonist’s mind.
Did you encounter any difficulties obtaining a permit for making the film?
No, I felt as though they did not bother to read the script, because later they accused us of diverging from the approved script. But the script was published, and anyone could see that we had followed it very closely. They based their criticisms on a pirate version of the film which was being sold in the streets. The was not the final version and I had made some more cuts in the final edit.
The structure of the story, of two brothers, one bad and one good, seems to go back to biblical times and the story of Cain and Abel.
Yes, to some extent the story is a classical tragedy, influenced by the old legends.
I remember that after winning the first prize at Abu Dhabi Film Festival, the film came under heavy criticism in Iran and there was a lot of abuse thrown at you.
The passage of time has helped to heal the pain that I suffered. Now you are opening the old wounds and it is very painful. I am trying to forget that period and look to the future. One time a guy came to me in a street and told me that he is sorry and wanted me to forgive him. I asked him what he has done. He replied that a few years ago, he was working with a group that were taking my film, showing it in various places and talking against it and its creators. I told him that what you did was not right but it’s in the past now. He said that during those activities his wife became very ill and developed cancer. Therefore, he needed my forgiveness to stop further pain and suffering coming to his family. I told him that I’ve forgiven him, if that makes him happy. It was interesting for me that they were so mobilised against this film as though all the problems facing the Iranian society was just this film. Whatever site you opened on the internet, was condemning this movie.
How did French producers become involved with Yalda?
I spent around five years looking for producers in Iran and found that no one was prepared to invest in my film. I really wanted to make Yalda with Iranian funding, because I was deeply upset about what had happened with my previous film. Any producers or investors who were initially interested, after they did an internet search and saw all the insults and accusations thrown at me, would change their mind, even if they were genuinely interested in making the film.
Yalda’s format is based on the Iranian TV reality show Honeymoon. Did you first see this show and was inspired to use its format in your script or had written the script and after seeing the program decided to change the structure of the script?
The initial drafts of the script were written before I had seen this program. The first draft was the story of a young pregnant woman who is watching the sonographic images of her unborn child. Though the doctor tells her that her baby is fine and is a boy, she is weeping profusely. At the end of this scene a prison guard comes and tells her not to worry, they will wait nine months till the baby is delivered and she will be given another two years to breastfeed him and only then they will execute you. This was the opening scene. Then the story begins, and we see in flashbacks her marriage and other scenes of her past. There were also several scenes in the maternity ward where they took pregnant women prisoners and of her mother trying to obtain clemency and reprieve from execution for her. It was a more classically structured script. Then a friend of mine told me about Honeymoon and how some episodes involved gathering both sides of a crime and trying to obtain forgiveness of the condemned person by the family of the deceased. When I watched the program, I decided to change the structure of the script to a chamber piece, set at real time in an enclosed environment. I knew it would be difficult and prone to much criticism, but I thought that it would be more interesting and more correct for the story.
Was it all filmed in Iran?
Yes. When my French producers saw the arduous manner in which I had to obtain filming permit, they told me that I could make the film in any country that I wanted and they would find a studio and build the sets and fly over the actors. But I insisted that I will either make the film in Iran or not make it at all. Because I felt that the actors would need to be in Iran to be totally in sync with the characters that they were playing.
Did you construct the TV studio set?
I looked around for a year to find a TV studio to use for filming. I made some changes to the script based on what I observed in real TV studios. For example, that in the control room, there were mainly women in charge of the productions. In my script I had mainly men in these roles and I changed it to women as it was truer to life. As the TV productions have considerably increased in recent years, we could not find any vacant studios to rent for filming. Eventually my brother Mahmoud Bakhshi, who is the art director of the film, told me about a theatre multiplex in south of Tehran. When I visited there, I found it to be exactly what I was looking for. We built the whole set there. It is the largest theatre multiplex in the Middle East and has seven auditoriums. However, since it was a bit far from the centre of Tehran, it was hardly being used. When my producers saw the place, they were shocked. They said this looks like Chicago, why then wouldn’t you make the film outside Iran? I said because this is in Tehran and we have such places here.
Your screenplay is full of little details which help to make it more realistic. Were these gradually added during re-writes or improvised during the shoot?
Both. The script went through eight drafts. During filming, I am a very democratic person and listened to all suggestions. I had the opportunity to rehearse with the principle actors for 4 weeks. This was very important for the screenplay because it is set in an enclosed space and information is relayed to the audience mainly by dialogue; there are no flashbacks with images and the backstory is voluminous. During the rehearsal period, I gave the actors information about the past history of their characters. I had a second script composed of backstories for the main characters and we rehearsed scenes from that script and, based on that, made revisions to the main script. When we started shooting the film, we had not rehearsed any of the scenes from the shooting script. It was as though events had occurred for the characters in the past and now they were talking about what they had experienced.
Both in Yalda and A Respectable Family you have elicited superb performances from your cast. What is your method of working with actors?
In A Respectable Family I did not have time for rehearsals, though I had discussions with actors. I recall telling Babak Hamidian that usually during rehearsal the discussions centre around what has happened in the characters past, to keep the scenes in the shooting script fresh for the actors. But with him, I did something different. I told him that we will go to the future. Imagine that the story told in the film is finished and you have published your memoirs. I am a journalist interviewing you and want you to explain to me the events that you have written about in your book. Hamidian welcomed this approach and we conducted a mock interview for a couple of hours and taped it. This helped him greatly to find his character, a university professor who has led a very eventful life from childhood.
I believe you need to rehearse in different ways with different actors, specially when you have a mix of professionals and amateurs. For example, Behnaz Jafari comes from theatre and is very open to rehearsals. Many times at the rehearsals she used to say, “you’ve killed us with your descriptions of our characters and their past actions!” But before every take, she used to ask me to provide more background history of her character. Sadaf Asgari belongs to the new generation of actors and told me that she did not want to rehearse and wished to save her energy for the actual shooting. So, these were two different methods of acting. These rehearsal periods allowed us to develop a very good rapport with each other which was very important, particularly for this film, where for extended periods you have two characters facing each other and talking. This is the most difficult way of storytelling, because you can see the faintest of facial reactions of the actors amplified on the large screen. And if these reactions are false and pretence, they will be found out. Behnaz Jafari was originally slated to play a different character but was very happy when one day I gave her the role of Mona. But that same afternoon she suddenly started to cry and fell on the ground, saying that this role is very difficult because on the surface she is very cold, detached and money minded, but inside she is under tremendous stress from both the loss of her father and having to forgive his assailant. But she managed to find the character beautifully.
The other thing that I did was to ask all the actors to find a real person in their lives whom they could use as a role model and study closely. Fereshteh Sadre Orafaiy told me that she does this for all her films. I think that Sadaf Asgari and the other young actors in the film, if they will be careful in selection of their future roles, will find their place among the greats.
I have seen Sadaf Asgari in a couple of short films and in Farnoosh Samadi’s 180° Rule, and she is a superb actress. I also think that one of your key collaborators is your editor Jacques Comets, with whom you also worked on A Respectable Family.
Jacques was the head of the Editing Department at La Femis School of Cinema and Television. We developed a very good understanding in A Respectable Family and I was lucky enough to have him edit this one too. He edited each scene as we shot it so that we could look at the rushes in the morning. He is somebody who is totally dedicated to his craft and follows Walter Murch’s saying that, “Telling the emotion of the story is the single most important part when it comes to editing.” He doesn’t confine himself to the traditional rules of editing. He exemplifies the saying that filmmaking is composed of three phases: writing the script, shooting the film, and editing.
Has the film been shown in Iran?
Yes, just when the cinemas were opened after the extended lockdown period. After discussions with a charity organization called “We Share Your Pain,” which helps to raise the blood money to free those imprisoned for manslaughter, we devoted the whole of the film’s gross to free two such prisoners. The first one was someone who had committed the crime when he was 14 and had already spent 15 years in prison. The second one was the son of the old man who plays the tea boy in Yalda. His son had a workshop which caught fire and someone died as a result of it. The son was imprisoned for manslaughter and after we paid the blood money, he was released only a few days ago.
Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine (Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).