“YALDA, A NIGHT OF FORGIVENESS”— Reality TV in Iran

“YALDA, A NIGHT OF FORGIVENESS”

Reality TV in Iran

Amos Lassen

In Iran, reality TV is a matter of life and death. The country’s traditions of “blood money” and legal retaliation have brought about real-life shows in which convicts seek pardons from those they have wronged. Young Maryam is a “contestant’ ON A SHOW but her TV appearance takes dramatic turns in screenwriter-director Massoud Bakhshi’s “Yalda”.

Yalda is the traditional Zoroastrian feast night during which Iranians celebrate Persian culture. It is not an ideal date for Maryam to beg for forgiveness, but with her execution fast approaching, time is important. Technically, she was only Nasser’s “temporary wife,” a longstanding Iranian relationship that is exactly what it sounds like. Temporary wives have no long-term spousal rights, but legal offspring have inheritance rights as long as they are male.

Maryam apparently allowed Nasser to die through sins of inaction following an accident. She was then convicted of murder and faces the death penalty, under the country’s “eye for an eye” criminal justice system. Her only hope is for Nasser’s daughter Mona to pardon her in exchange for blood money. A TV program facilitates such pardons but there are two problems: Mona does not want to forgive and Maryam does not want to ask for forgiveness.

Maryam, who is in her twenties, could easily pass for a girl in her early teens. There is clearly something in a society that so readily accepted Nasser’s marriage to a teenaged girl (at the time), especially in an exploitative temporary arrangement. Most of the drama in the film comes out of the gender and class-based inequalities of Iranian society. The film follows in the tradition of emotionally-draining dramas of Iranian films. The director revs up the tension in fascinating ways. This is an eye-opening look at contemporary Iran as well as a wild ride that shows a live TV broadcast going amok.

Sadaf Asgari as Maryam is young and vulnerable looking conveying something unpredictable and wild that keeps unbalances the viewers. Behnaz Jafari as Mona is severe and human at the same time and Babak Karimi is clever and cynical as Ayat the producer.

We see the way religious law penetrates every aspect of Iranian life, from a murder case to how a TV show is run. The perverse logic of temporary marriage, inheritance laws favoring boys and homicide laws stacked against wives and the practice of paying one’s way out of a hanging with “blood money” to the victim’s relatives are elements of the plot.

Arriving at the TV station in handcuffs, young Maryam looks dazed and dull while her mother is foolishly excited. The showrunner, an older man  assures her they are going to save her life on the program and the expectation is that Maryam is going to persuade her dead husband’s daughter the heiress to his ad agency to grant her forgiveness.

It soon becomes clear that Maryam’s nervousness and lack of self-control could threaten a happy ending. She has already served 15 months in prison and seems emotionally shattered. Her mother bothers everyone on the set and jeopardizes her pardon.

As the story of the “murder” comes out, outrageous facts follow.  The wealthy husband Nasser Zia was 65 and married when he decided to importune innocent young Maryam, his driver’s daughter. He convinced her that he loved her, got her to agree to “temporary marriage,” which avoids sin along with permanent commitment. But Maryam disregarded Nasser’s condition for marriage that there be no children, and when she got pregnant they began fighting. Maryam gave Nasser a push that made him fall in the living room of his apartment where he hit his head and died. She was sentenced to death by hanging.

The prosecutor is happy to commute this sentence to three to six years in prison if she wins the sympathy of enough viewers who vote in her favor and pays blood money supplied by the show’s sponsors.Halfway through, Mona Zia turn up at the station late and dressed entirely in black. She plan to use the blood money to go abroad. But her expected forgiveness is put into question by a last-minute plot twist.

Asgari is wonderfuly cast in the main role. Karimi leads the TV crew in taking the whole absurd situation seriously.

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