Jacques Bidou, Marianne Dumoulin on Challenges of Producing Sundance-Player ‘Yalda’ in Iran

Massoud Bakhshi’s second feature, “Yalda, a Night for Forgiveness,” has its world premiere in Sundance’s World Cinema Dramatic Competition, to be screened without the director.

The pic’s production company, JBA Production, and sales outfit, Pyramide International, issued a joint statement on Jan. 14 explaining that the director won’t be attending due to the U.S.-Iran crisis, adding that Bakhshi’s “position is delicate, given the current tensions between the two countries.”

In an exclusive interview with Variety, JBA Production’s Jacques Bidou and Marianne Dumoulin, chronicled the complex task of producing Bakhshi’s second feature. They also produced his 2012 Cannes-player, “A Respectable Family,” about corruption in his country, which is still banned in Iran.

Bidou and Dumoulin have been working together for 27 years and as joint producers at JBA Production for the past 20 years. They have produced 44 feature films, shot in 22 countries, and have enjoyed a regular presence on the festival circuit including 21 films selected at Cannes.

Their politically-engaged films aim to challenge pre-conceived notions about foreign countries, and they have produced pics in political hotspots around the world, such as Iran, Lebanon, Ukraine, Puerto Rico, Venezuela and China.

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“We want to challenge prejudices, but we always need an authorial vision and an ethical viewpoint,” says Dumoulin. “We don’t want to create a fake impression of a country or a touristic-style film. That is fundamental for us. We need to have intimacy.”

In the case of “Yalda,” the producers aimed to highlight the fact that Iran is a country with extremely modern infrastructures, such as Tehran’s 435 meter-high Milad tower, the world’s sixth largest tower, which appears in the pic’s opening drone shot, while at the same time maintaining practices that appear medieval to Western eyes.

“Yalda” revolves around this tension between archaic traditions and hi-tech modernity.

The pic is about a young woman, Maryam who has been sentenced to death for accidentally killing her older husband, Nasser. To avoid the death penalty she must convince the victim’s family to forgive her, but her pleading is broadcast live on an Iranian TV reality show – which exists in real life and has millions of viewers – that is screened during the “Yalda” winter solstice celebration, traditionally a time of forgiveness.

Bidou and Dumoulin began working with Bakhshi in 2009, after meeting him at the Turin Film Lab, where he pitched the script for his first feature.

The helmer continues to live with his family in Iran and has had to rebuild his career after the ban on “A Respectable Family.”

“Yalda” was line produced by Iranian producer Ali Mossafa, and has been screened at Iran’s Farj film festival. It will be released in Iranian theaters in late 2020.

Putting together the €1 million ($1.1 million) budget was a major challenge for JBA and the pic is structured as a coproduction between Iran, France, Germany, Switzerland and Luxembourg, involving 19 partners.

Bahkshi attended the Sundance Screenwriters Lab in 2016 with “Yalda,” and also attended script labs at Turin, Groupe Ouest and La Fabrique Cinéma.

Preparations began when relations between Iran and the West were on a better footing, after the lifting of sanctions, but the reimposition of tough sanctions on Iran in May 2018 also impacted the production, including freezing of the accounts dedicated to the film, which paralyzed the production and required transfer of funds via a private bank to enable the shooting to proceed.

“It was an incredible adventure,” says Bidou, “in both creative and practical terms.”

The producers say that the permissions and shooting permits required for the six-week shoot, entirely lensed in Iran, including the opening drone shot, were relatively straightforward.

Bidou says that the pic is a new development for Iranian cinema, which tends to be divided between mainstream comedies and more poetic films, by filmmakers such as the late Abbas Kiarostami.

He says that “Yalda” reminds him of works such as Sidney Lumet’s “The Verdict” in terms of its dramatic tension, mixing elements of a thriller and suspense.

A key dimension of the film is the main female characters – including Maryam and Mona, the victim’s daughter, who must decide whether the pardon should be granted.

Bidou says that women play a key role in Iranian society, another factor that tends to be unknown in Western circles. “Women are a very strong force in Iranian society,” adds Dumoulin. “Iran isn’t an Arab country, it’s Persian, and there is a long tradition of strong women intervening in society. For example 70% of students in universities are women.”

Bidou underscores the talent of 23-year-old actress, Sadaf Asgari, who plays Maryam, and who previously starred in Ali Asgari’s “Disappearance,” which won several awards.

Pyramide is handling international sales and the multiple partners involved in the project ensure that it will be released in theaters in multiple territories, including France, Germany, Switzerland, Benelux and Italy.

The pic’s European festival premiere will be announced on Jan. 22.

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