Yalda - Talkshow as Biopower

Essay by Matthias Wittmann

Yalda - Talkshow as Biopower


[…] Talk shows are not only a place of forced confession, but also a place of «biopower» (biopouvoir), as Michel Foucault would put it: throughout the show, rich daughter Mona gets the «power to make life or to push to death».  

[…] The virtuosity of Yalda consists in the strategy of hardly ever leaving the dispositive of the TV stage, forcing us to almost permanently inhabit the camera perspectives directed by the control room of the TV show.  

[…] At the centre of the film is a reflection on the conditions of performativity; not only in terms of the show in the strictest sense, but with regard to the Iranian society as a whole, which Hamid Naficy once called a «performative nation».


It is a leitmotif of Iranian Sufism that truth can be considered as a perfectly polished mirror in which light is given shape, yet this mirror has been broken into pieces. I would like to borrow the image of the broken mirror to distinguish several Iranian film styles, which means several perspectives on the relationship between image and reality.

One perspective emphasizes the search for the truth as being more important than truth itself. Another perspective focuses on the deficits inherent to the image (= fragment), which always refers to a multiplicity of other mirror pieces, all yearning for completion. This perspective still presumes a universal truth. Furthermore, the broken mirror image could be interpreted in the sense that the measure of universal truth is lost and artists are committed to a particular shape of the mirror fragment that produces a certain reality in cooperation with the imagination of the audience and its own mirror fragments. The latter can be found in many films of Abbas Kiarostami. There is yet another style of realism: it confuses the clear cut between fact and fiction by juxtaposing contradictory versions of reality (= mirror fragments). One could call it a specific Iranian form of Sergei Eisenstein’s conflict montage.

This specific form of producing tensions between conflictual statements has been elaborated before the Islamic Revolution of 1979 by Kamran Shirdel, whose films – e.g. Tehran Is the Capital of Iran (1966, Teheran, payetakht-e Iran ast) and The Night it Rained (1967, An shab ke barun amad)stand at the beginning of a whole tradition of dialectical, socio-critical movies, diversified after 1979 by directors such as Rakshan Banietemad and Massoud Bakhshi. «Trained in the strong documentary tradition of the Iranian cinema, I write my films in relation with the realities of Iranian society» (Bakhshi). For director Bakhshi, as with Banietemad, research and pre-production are the most important part of developing a film.

Already seen in his first feature, the highly experimental documentary Tehran Has No More Pomegranates (2007, Tehrān anār nadārad), a «musical historical, comedy, docu-drama, love story, experimental film» (Bakhshi), challenges the conventions of the genre and the boundaries of what is commonly understood by the category of “documentary”. The structure of Tehran Has No More Pomegranates takes the form of a report about the production of the film we are watching. Bakhshi calls into question the reality purported by Iranian institutions and authorities, and at the same time tries to give an accurate, realistic picture of the contradictions as experienced by the inhabitants of Tehran.

It was not easy for Bakhshi to stay in touch with those conflicting, multi-layered realities of everyday Iranian life: his second feature film, A Respectable Family (2012), based on four years of research and Bakhshi’s own childhood memories of the Iraq-Iran war, was brutally repressed and did not receive screening permission in Iran. In dissidence to the official Iranian memory culture, Bakhshi tackles two hot topics of Iranian society in a very critical manner: religion and war. What particularly stirred up the hatred of the authorities was the fact that the film – from a very materialistic, secular perspective – exposes religion as propaganda, «sacred defence» as business and the cult of martyrdom as an economic factor of a corrupt administration. The film became a judicial case.

His dramatic feature Yalda - A Night for Forgiveness (2020), which premiered in Tehran at the Fajr International Film Festival, can be considered as Bakhshi’s comeback after a long dry spell during which he was confronted with numerous rejections of his film projects. Obviously Bakhshi got shooting permission for Tehran, even if he could not find an Iranian producer: «[...] the reasons are clear. My first film was banned there and no one wanted to work with a blacklisted director!» For this reason, the film became what is often derogatorily called “europudding”: a patchwork of film promotion funds between France, Germany, Switzerland, Luxembourg and Lebanon. “West-Eastern film divan” would probably be more appropriate than “europudding”, and where should reflected perspectives on local phenomena arise if not in the «third space» (Homi Bhabha) of a transcultural perspective?!

In Yalda, Bakhshi stays committed to his – almost Brechtian – dialectical historical materialism, reflecting a reality as a product of interests and forces, but this time his critique of society is more hidden. “Hidden” does not mean that he is putting a conventional symbolism in place and using proven allegories to place critical charges. If censorship is a set of permanently shifting, partly unwritten red lines that compel filmmakers to play a game of hide-and-seek called “symbolism”, then Bakhshi’s semi-fictional, semi-documentary approach can be considered as a set of strategies to avoid engaging in this game.

Regarding Yalda, his main strategy is a hypertrophic tackling of the social reality and the everyday instances of censorship mechanisms itself by locating the film events at the heart of a censorship authority: the fictional reality TV and talk show Joy of Forgiveness, which is inspired by a real TV show (Māh-e Asal, what means: “honeymoon”). «I just exaggerated some points», Bakhshi said in an interview when asked about the reality content of his show concept.

In a certain respect, Bakhshi confronts us with an Iranian version of The Hunger Games (2012): The film or, better said, the show within the film, tells us the story of a 26 year old poor woman, Maryam Komijani (Sadaf Asgari), condemned to death for having murdered her rich 65 years old husband, Nasser Zia, the 65-year-old CEO of an agency. In fact, Maryam was forced into a temporary marriage (Sigheh), which forbade her from having a child, since any child conceived through such a marriage can claim a portion of the father's inheritance. On the night that gave the film its title, “Yalda” – the longest and darkest night of the year – celebrated in Afghanistan, Iran and Tajikistan – Maryam is invited to the TV show Joy of Forgiveness to ask the only daughter of the victim for forgiveness. Upper class daughter Mona (Behnaz Jafari) has the right to retribution, but she has also the power to renounce this religious and at the same time legal entitlement .

Under sharia law homicide is in the first instance a conflict between believers mediated by the state, whereby in this case the TV show occupies the role of the mediating state. The perpetrator is either punished by the Qisas principle (“life for life, eye for eye”) or can be forgiven by the heirs of the victim. There is also the “possibility” that a certain amount of “blood money” (Diya) is paid by the family of the offender to the victim's family as compensation. The amount also depends on the sex of the victim. The value of a woman is set at half of what a man would pay for the offences in question.

Talk shows are not only a place of forced confession, but also a place of «biopower» (biopouvoir), as Michel Foucault would put it: throughout the show, rich daughter Mona gets the «power to make life or to push to death» (Michel Foucault). Will Mona forgive Maryam? Will Maryam succeed in begging for forgiveness and, by doing so, also earning the blood money that the show promises to pay to Mona? Those are the ostensible questions raised by the film in supposed complicity with the dramaturgy of an allegedly socially committed show, which tells us the story of a class struggle that has to find the happy ending that the show’s title promises: Joy of Forgiveness.

The virtuosity of Yalda consists in the strategy of hardly ever leaving the dispositive of the TV stage, forcing us to almost permanently inhabit the camera perspectives directed by the control room of the TV show. What director Bakhshi primarily does is to translate a court room drama – as we know it from Mahnaz Afzali’s most important and most disturbing film The Red Card (2006, Carte Ghermez) – into a drama governed by the laws of a TV show; whereby we, the film audience, are actually sitting in the place of the inner-diegetic TV audience, surrounded by opulent furniture, shades of pomegranate and pastel colours, neon calligrams and symbols of liberty (e.g. birds), Persian cuddle pop interludes (by Saman Jalili) and pathetic recitations of Hafez’ poems. One could speak of a mixture of neo-Sufism and neoliberal post-Islamism, which is celebrated on stage.

We rarely get the opportunity to take a look behind the scenes and share moments of intimacy beyond the spotlight. Even backstage, the characters are permanently disciplined and bombarded by makeup, directives, codes of conduct and sound snippets from video recordings, which invade and penetrate their “private spheres”, i.e. backstage rooms. «The important thing is to show remorse and never lose your nerve! They have to see how you suffer! That will make an impression on Mona. Then she must forgive you. Nobody wants to hear a death sentence on Yalda night», Maryam's mother says to her daughter at the beginning of the film, like a boxing coach to her million dollar boxing baby, while she straightens the headscarf of her daughter.

In fact, the film is what you might call a dispositif film (Adrian Martin): committed to a rigid set of rules, mechanisms and patterns of a show that the film gets to debunk itself at the same time. Comparable to Asghar Farhadi's film A Separation (2011, Jodaí-e Nadér az Simín), Bakhshi leaves the audience to adjudicate over the case. By dissolving the fourth wall and including the audience as accomplice in the (com-)plot, Bakhshi makes his film connectable to the tradition of the only Shiite drama form, the passion play called ta'ziyeh. The ta'ziyeh in its classical form has no fourth wall and no “outside” of the stage. Cinematically reformulated: there is neither hors-champ (inner diegetic hiding place) nor hors-cadre (backstage), because the audience sits in a circle around the performance that re-enacts the martyrdom of Imam Hussein at Kerbala. The female martyrs of Joy of Forgiveness, Mona and Maryam, are surrounded by 30 million viewers at home who can participate via text messages, as the well-dressed host Omid (Arman Darvish) announces at the beginning of the show.

In a cool, analytical style that never moralises, Bakhshi questions a system from within its own laws, and decodes the DNA of an entire society via the mechanisms of a television show, along spotlights and cameras brought into position to create victims and perpetrators, martyrs and forgiving authorities. However, there is another story within this story (and not so much behind the story), there are other questions hidden in the spotlight (and not so much in the shadows of the spotlight), that the film Yalda tells us and raises in subtle nuances. At the centre of the film is a reflection on the conditions of performativity; not only in terms of the show in the strictest sense, but with regard to the Iranian society as a whole, which Hamid Naficy once called a «performative nation». Yalda confronts us with a female struggle against a patriarchal system, a fight which, conversely , only gets the opportunity to articulate itself in those roles that are intended for and expected of women by the society, i.e. by a television show that is hell-bent on not allowing social change, on maintaining the separation of classes, and on incapacitating women over and over again.

Outside the show is inside the show: women are forced into roles, here – in concrete terms – in two roles: a tight-lipped, controlled upper class woman who is defending her social position and her father’s business against an emotionally unstable, naïve, but stubborn, mercy-seeking young lower class woman, who at the same time sees no reason to go on living because her baby died. At least that's what she thinks.

The roles and the decisions are made by the show in such a way that class society and class differences ultimately remain unquestioned, God-willed. What the show grants to the women are fictious rights at the intersection of gender and class discrimination. Forgiveness brings no joy; it is not an act of freely chosen humanity but a confirmation and sealing of the roles and duties that women have to play. Being a woman means balancing demands and controlling emotions, while singer Jalili schmaltzily sings about «how feelings belong to every single person». In fact, in the end, the two female protagonists are left alone with their demands and passions, separated and de-solidarized, comme d’habitude.

When Mona, in one of the few scenes that allow the protagonists a kind of “privacy”, is seen alone in front of the backstage mirror with her sweat-soaked headscarf, she is reminiscent of an exhausted boxer with a towel, being allowed five minutes of rest between the rounds.

If the Islamic term shahid (شهيد  ), often translated to “martyr”, derives from the Quranic Arabic word for “witness” – as is also the case in Greek, where martus, the root word for martyr, means “the one who bears witness” – then I would like to argue that the film Yalda not only exposes the body of the female protagonists to a game of rules imposed by the TV show – as a microcosm of social constraints – but also shows us this body in a feminist way, as a witness (shahid/martus) of patriarchal conditions, giving us, the audience, the chance to witness the complex layering (= corset) of performances forced on women’s bodies.

The virtuosity of the film lies in the fact that we are not tricked into asking for an authentic outside of the show. Everything revolves around the fine differences of performances. In this respect, the film is comparable to Neïl Beloufa’s Restored Communication (2018) as Giuseppe Di Salvatore has shown: «The reality is nothing than the setting of this circulation of stepping into and out of a system of rules, standards, and norms that is actually made of this exact circulation itself». In the end, when we see the TV studio from the outside and snowfall in the foreground – one of the rare outdoor shots of this chamber play – it seems as if we finally get the artificial snow that was promised to us from the beginning by the host of the TV show. Just like Tehran's Milad tower (Bordsch-e Mīlād), which can be seen in the first shot, seems to establish less a real Tehran, but rather a reality show of never-ending hunger games and passion plays in the name of God: spiritual rebirth in the service of preserving the status quo.

Yalda – A Night for Forgiveness | Film | Massoud Bakhshi | IRN-FR-DE-CH-LUX-LBN 2020 | 89’ | FIFDH Genève 2020

More Info  

ONLINE STREAMING (Switzerland) on Filmexplorer’s Choice by filmingo.ch

Online streaming at the Solothurner Filmtage 2021