Iranian filmmaker cancels trip to Sundance festival, citing ‘dark times’

(Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute) Massoud Bakhshi, the Tehran-born director of "Yalda, a Night for Forgiveness," an official selection of the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Bakhshi sent a letter to Sundance, saying he won't attend the festival because of tensions between Iran and the United States, Iranian news outlets reported.

An Iranian filmmaker says he won’t be coming to the 2020 Sundance Film Festival with his movie this month, opting to instead "stay with my people who have been under sanctions, pressure, and bans by all sick warmongers.”

Director Massoud Bakhshi was set to appear in Park City when his drama “Yalda, a Night of Forgiveness” screened outside Iran for the first time, on Sunday, Jan. 26, at the Egyptian Theatre. A spokesman for Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute said Jan. 10 that “Yalda” would still screen.

According to reports in two Iranian news outlets, Bakhshi sent a letter to Redford himself, explaining why he wouldn’t be coming to Utah and citing rising tensions between his country and the United States.

(Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute) Sadaf Asgari appears in "Yalda, a Night for Forgiveness," directed by Massoud Bakhshi, an official selection of the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

“Under the current circumstances, I decided to cancel my participation at your festival to stay with my people who have been under sanctions, pressure, and bans by all sick warmongers,” Bakhshi wrote in his letter, which was printed online by The Tehran Times and the Mehr News Agency.

The Sundance spokesman said the institute had no knowledge of any letter. One of the Iranian reports said Bakhshi wanted his film pulled from the festival; the Sundance spokesman said that report was erroneous.

Tensions between the United States and Iran rose on Jan. 2, when President Donald Trump ordered a drone strike that killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the top Iranian military leader in Iraq. The Iranian military retaliated Tuesday night by shooting 22 missiles at U.S.-backed military bases. No one died in those missile attacks, Trump said in an address to the nation Wednesday, and both sides seemed to back down from a full military conflict.

Bakhshi’s letter, the Iranian news outlets said, included a personal note to Redford. Bakhshi reportedly noted that Redford called Trump "a dictator that tramples on all the values Americans once prided themselves on. The Iranians understand this; hopefully, the Americans will, too.”

In an op-ed piece posted on NBC News’s website in November, Redford referred to the charges in the articles of impeachment against Trump: That the president abused his power and obstructed a Congressional investigation into alleged efforts to get Ukraine officials to get dirt on former Vice President Joe Biden’s son, Hunter. Redford called it “a dictatorial attack … on everything this country stands for.”

Bakhshi’s letter concluded: “We are living in dark times, and we need the light of culture more than ever. Hope your festival can shine a light on that darkness.”

“Yalda” tells the story, based on true events, of a 22-year-old woman, Maryam, sentenced to death for murdering her 65-year-old husband, Nasser. Maryam’s only hope of avoiding execution is to get the victim’s daughter, Nora, 37, to forgive her — on a nationally televised reality show, in front of millions of TV viewers, during Yalda, the winter solstice celebration.

In the festival’s program guide, Sundance programmers said Bakhshi “brings esthetic energy and dramatic intensity to a story that unfolds over a few hours and almost entirely within the studio.” The film, the programmers said, “elucidates Iran’s vibrant, modern identity alongside its deeply traditional culture.”

The movie is one of 12 chosen for the festival’s World Cinema Dramatic competition. It will screen four times in Park City, and once in Salt Lake City: Thursday, Jan. 30, 6 p.m., at the Tower Theatre, 876 E. 900 South.

The festival runs Jan. 23-Feb. 2 in Park City, and at venues in Salt Lake City and the Sundance resort in Provo Canyon.