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Sundance 2020 Dispatch 6: Yalda, a Night of Forgiveness; Time; Panels and Mixers

Sadaf Asgari in Yalda, a Night for Forgiveness (Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

As I hinted at in my first dispatch, co-creation has been buzzy in documentary circles of late, with gatekeepers and filmmakers both interested in finding ways of working that challenge the decision-making processes of nonfiction filmmaking. This year’s Sundance was also chock full of filmmakers who started out in documentary and have recently moved into fiction; Canon even sponsored a panel featuring Matt Heineman on this very topic.

One of these films was Yalda, a Night of Forgiveness, an ingeniously conceptualized, impeccably acted and tightly shot single location piece, it both buys into and subverts crucial elements of thriller, reality TV and murder documentary tropes. Director Massoud Bahkshi is on his second fiction feature, with the previous, A Respectable Family, well-received as a Cannes Director’s Fortnight premiere. Like his debut, this film is an intense, intimate look at one family, though it takes place only over the course of one evening. The basic premise hinges on the phenomenon of Iranian women murdering male members of their family—the conditions of these women’s prisons are sensitively recorded by master Iranian filmmaker Mehrdad Oskouei, whose latest documentary, Sunless Shadows, features interviews with these female murderers using the camera as a sort of reparative therapy.

Yalda utilizes performance, too, in a differently radical way. Its main character, Maryam (Sadaf Asgari, in a stunning performance), is an unwilling participant on Iran’s most popular reality TV show, ironically named The Joy of Forgiveness, and a convicted murderer. On the show, she has the chance to beg for forgiveness from the daughter of her former husband, Zia. If granted, she would earn back her life. This is because Iran’s eye-for-an-eye legal system gives the victim’s closest relative the “legal and spiritual” right to enact the death penalty or accept blood money as payment. The particulars of her case are based off of a true story, but—as far as I can tell through research—no such reality TV show actually exists. There was, however, a live primetime TV broadcast of a government official admitting to killing his wife, and several high profile cases of convicted murderers being forgiven seconds before being hanged, so the idea doesn’t appear too outrageous.

The film starts with the arrival of Maryam and her mother to the TV studio, where Maryam is hustled through costume and makeup before being sequestered in the control room because her handler is worried she will escape. Mona, the only child of Zia, arrives much later, so the first third of the film is entirely focused on Maryam and how she is rendered voiceless by this process that, as the show’s producer righteously informs her, is engineered because they want to save her life (and make money). This rhetoric is the exact same commonly deployed to justify ethical lapses in documentary filmmaking, a comparison that becomes more and more chilling throughout Yalda. Faced with Mona’s delayed arrival, the showrunners decide to air a short documentary designed to lure as many viewers as possible, showing scenes from Maryam’s interrogation as well as speculation on her motivations from everyone except for Maryam herself. There’s even a glimpse of a re-enactment that the police asked her to do to retrace what happened that evening, working both as exposition for the audience of Yalda and as a critique of its veracity—it turns out Maryam’s marriage was a temporary one to a much older man, a loophole in the legal system that allows polygamy for men but has grave consequences for women living in sin. The couple were arguing about Maryam’s unplanned pregnancy when she shoved him; he hit his head, she fled in panic and he bled to death half an hour later. Watching this documentary about her life re-traumatizes Maryam—these events all happen before the show even goes live.

As the packed plot implies, everything about the film is calculated to provide moral gray areas, and it all mostly works. Multiple twists are saved from becoming mere dramatics by focusing on the gestures and reactions of all the main characters without showiness or melodramatic music. Sometimes the acting is overdone, and Yalda does not quite manage to fully flesh Mona out as a character. She mostly serves to mirror Maryam, with all the wealth and opportunity that wasn’t offered to Maryam, the daughter of her father’s driver. (The first mention of Mona’s name is with her off-screen, as she drives herself to the studio, an overly obvious signal she has privileges she’ll readily weaponize). The film’s major misstep is to imply that Mona’s change of heart is driven by an incident in the last third of the film, the causal relationship too neat an inverse of Maryam’s situation. I fully admit that even this partial plot recap sounds bonkers in a melodramatic fashion. There’s a lot to juggle, the sensory overload exacerbated by the show itself, its ornate set captured in the film’s international-art-house-gritty-realism handheld style. Maryam’s episode of The Joy of Forgiveness is broadcast the evening of Iran’s winter solstice festival, Shab-e Yalda. Because of the family-centric nature of the holiday, the show features variety show performances, an in-show cameo by a famous actress, a participatory live studio audience and a fantastically ultra-real text-in segment that awards Maryam the blood money from the show’s sponsors if enough viewers vote to offer her forgiveness.

When the show is over, the film ends with a moment that cemented my belief Bakhshi is firmly in control of his material: Maryam picks up a pair of scissors after an argument with Mona and appears to run after her. Like others in the screening, some of whom audibly groaned (one man shouted “no!” at the screen), my heart dropped. Did I sit through all of this, wrestling with my own participation in the documentary-philanthropy-industrial complex, only to see this film buy into the worst impulses of its characters? But what Maryam does is moving, and rocked me back in my seat as I realized that it was I, as the viewer, whose thoughts reflected that of an oppressive legal system, who assigns blame without considering root causes, and who is complicit in my thirst for confrontation and violence.

After, still shaken, I made my way over to the Prospector Theater for the public premiere of Garrett Bradley’s Time, a transcendentally beautiful documentary on freedom, faith, and love. Sibil Fox Richardson, known as Fox Rich, introduces herself in home video footage she filmed over 20 years ago for her husband, Robert, incarcerated in Louisiana’s notorious Angola prison for armed robbery. Both filmmakers and subjects are masters of storytelling conventions, with every performance considered and utterly natural: Fox is introduced a second time in the behind-the-scenes for a commercial shoot for her used car sales business, first rehearsing and improvising a monologue that establishes her as an exceptional salesperson, before also demanding control of how she is represented on camera.

The film moves back and forth between the present—Fox’s work advocating for prison abolition and Robert’s release—and the past, in the form of Fox’s home video archive that she recorded in order to update Robert on all the years he missed in prison. Unlike common editing conventions that construct scenes around the advancement of a plot, Time is much more interested in spending time with its subjects. The specifics of Robert’s case are dispensed with rapid-fire efficiency near the start of the film, which doesn’t spend much time on the particulars of his case after. What the film asks audiences to spend time with are scenes like Fox’s phone calls with judges’ secretaries. Seeking updates on Robert’s parole, the waiting she endures, as well as the repetition of this act, not only illustrate the personal harm in separating families but also the systemic injustice of it all. One of the film’s most affecting scenes is the last of these phone calls to appear in the film. After learning that the administrator on the other end had dismissed her without even bothering to check on her inquiry, Fox goes through several layers of emotion, from disbelief to resignation to rage and determination.

Bradley’s first feature, Below Dreams, is a doc-fiction hybrid. Her work since, including the Sundance jury prize-winning short film Alone (through which Bradley met Fox), has displayed a similar fluidity and willingness to experiment in techniques. Time draws liberally from all sorts of source materials: the Richardson home video archive, interviews with relatives, voiceover from Fox and Robert’s six sons, a speech that Fox gives at a prison abolition event and observational footage of the family’s daily life. What’s remarkably present is the amount of intimacy and romantic love that never sacrifices the family’s privacy. Bradley and editor Gabriel Rhodes (who corralled a similarly eclectic mix of source material in a portrait of another singular star, Matangi/Maya/M.I.A..), imbue the film with the ebbs and flows of their lives before leading to a true climax with the (spoiler alert) family’s reunification. Many things in the film shouldn’t work—B&W stylization, rote use of music during archival sequences to make up for degraded aesthetics, rewinding the VHS tapes as an epilogue—but they all magnificently do. The last shot is devastating, reuniting the family in a different way, through the force of memories and the video medium itself.

After screening films through the afternoon, I went to my first event of the day. Scheduling as a freelance programmer and writer on assignment at Sundance is always an exercise in opportunity cost. Many members of the industry, if they’re not working as programmers or critics, spend all their time at networking receptions and parties, then fill up the rest of their visit with one-on-one meetings. In this way, the films at Sundance don’t matter at all—what matters is that it’s a space where many decision-makers gather. For instance, some of my condo-mates were here, as many filmmakers are, to drum up funding and industry support for their projects. They described to me the experience of going to parties and meeting folks who introduce themselves as philanthropists or as film funders—the hobnobbing is encouraged here, creating a frenzied state of affairs. 

What pleasure, then, to arrive at the Firelight House for the panel, “On Whose Shoulders?”, a panel of Black filmmakers who work in the experimental side of the form, followed by a reception celebrating a new scholarship program named after pioneering Black filmmaker William Greaves. Firelight Media was founded by Stanley Nelson and Marcia Smith as their production company 20 years ago, but Firelight now also supports many robust artist development programs. In her introduction, Smith explained that given the maturity of their company, this is the first year that they decided to participate in creating the conversation at Sundance. Many nonprofits and corporations sponsoring “houses” with panel and artist talk programming, all serving to advance their services and points of view. In the diversity and inclusion space, the Blackhouse is the oldest and still most prominent. Unlike all of those other houses, however, which mostly line Main Street, or the official partner panels, which take place at the Kimball in town, the Firelight House is on the outskirts of Park City. Its location serves as the embodiment of re-orienting ourselves to the peripheral as a center of gravity. 

As for the panel itself, it actually started before Smith’s introduction with a dance and music performance by Rashida Bumbray, the celebrated choreographer, curator, and program manager at the Open Society Foundations (with composer Samora Pinderhughes on keyboard). This start was profoundly different from the other panels I’d subjected myself to in the past week—enerous with its audience, slowing down the pace of our connection with each other. After Bumbray’s performance, BlackStar Film Festival’s founder and director, Maori Karmel Holmes, moderated a conversation with Jon-Serie Goff, Sophia Nahli Allison (here at Sundance with her extraordinary short, A Love Song for Latasha), David Greaves and Nelson himself, who appeared via Skype because he was in LA for the Grammys. (Beyoncé won their category, best music documentary.) Holmes took care to contextualize both Greaves’ importance through showing clips of his news channel, Black Journal, and his seminal work, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm. The following conversation centered around Goff and Allison’s influences, their relationship to Greaves and the importance of mentorship and understanding continuity in film history. Firelight continues their slate of events with more panels and a party–the care behind all of their planning set a new bar for the pedagogical and community-building potential of public facing events at Sundance.

Saturday also was Lunar New Year. It’s now the year of the rat. Without any official Sundance events, the Asian American Documentary Network (A-Doc), which is hosting members attending Sundance for the first time, organized an informal mixer at their condo. Upon arriving, I was greeted by a roomful of familiar faces and immediately felt like this was a true family. Everyone was welcome, from student filmmakers to industry veterans. (It was also Jean Tsien’s birthday, and being her zodiac year, one of particular import and good luck.) These spaces remain precarious and, this year, depended on the goodwill of Sundance’s Press and Inclusion Office; they’re necessary and cherished as Sundance’s sprawl grows and access becomes ever more limited.

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