EDITOR’S NOTE: Reviews of The Persian Version and Joonam were written by Les Roka and Shayda was penned by Thomas Dugrosprez.
Three films by directors representing the Iranian diaspora premiered at Sundance and while each approached their subjects in different ways, the collective set offers a rich, comprehensive portrait of Iranian women as strong-willed independent individuals who are paragons of Persian pride and culture. They include the documentary Joonam, directed by Sierra Urich and two narrative features which have won awards at this year’s Sundance: The Persian Version, directed by Maryam Keshavarz, and Shayda, directed by Noora Niasari.
The Persian Version
A hybrid nature has always served America well. It is the cornerstone of the immigrant story in the country. Far too often the best epiphanies of the sentiment can be lost, when a hard core minority of nativists use hateful rhetoric in attempting to diminish the immigrant’s presence in the country. In her artistic statement for The Persian Version, which has received an exuberant premiere at Sundance this year, award-winning film director Maryam Keshavarz wrote, “As an Iranian-American, I was immersed in two powerful and conflicting identities… in two worlds. The Great Satan of America on one side and the Axis of Evil of Iran on the other.”
On the cinematic screen, the most effective films which make immigrant stories visible succeed because their creators extract the greatest artistic impact by flexing with and fusing genres into a hybrid form of narrative structure and flow. Keshavarz’s The Persian Version excels in finessing the hybrid approach, effusive in its joyful tone of entertainment as well as its sincerely emotional and dramatic notes.
There is something for every viewer in the film, as evidenced by the strongly enthusiastic response of the audience at a screening in downtown Salt Lake City this week. In Sundance’s U.S. Dramatic Competition slate, The Persian Version received the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award and the Audience Award.
It is an autobiographical tale. On one dimension, as Keshavarz says in an interview with The Utah Review, “it reflected our humanity, fun and dancing and funny aspects of growing up with seven brothers and one bathroom in New York.” Most significantly, she explains, “The story is so much about the resilience of women through different decades of Iranian society.” Adding that the film is a love letter to strong Iranian women, she continues, “Anyone who knows Iranian women know how bad ass and fierce they are and don’t accept the status quo.”
That sentiment sets a rollicking pace at the film’s outset, which sets up the film’s contentious tone between mother and daughter. Viewers will,quickly,pick up on the fact that the seven brothers in the film are essentially a comedic chorus in the narrative . The film’s setting is in the 2000s but flashbacks fill out the narrative structure, covering four decades. The comedy flows effortlessly. Leila (the director’s alter ego, played by Layla Mohammad), an aspiring filmmaker, expresses her rebellious nature, which infuriates her mother endlessly. Leila’s marriage to Elena (Mia Foo) has crumbled so she is enjoying her sexual freedom. The audience hooted and roared at Leila’s Halloween costume — a ‘burka-kink.’ She hooks up with Maxmilian (Tom Byrne), a British actor who is dressed in drag (he is in a production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch), and ends up pregnant.
Leila believes Shirin (Niousha Noor), her mother, has always despised her because of her sexual identity. Meanwhile, everyone from the family has gathered in New York, as the father (Bijan Daneshmand) is set for a heart transplant. Leila becomes even more frustrated as Shirin insists she keeps her distance, banning her from her father’s hospital room. Leila seeks out the advice of her grandmother Mamanjoon (Bella Warda), with whom she has a good relationship. Advising her granddaughter to write about her mother as a way of comprehending their relationship, Mamanjoon tips Leila to a shocking fact that Shirin and her father left Iran for the U.S. because of a scandal.
From that point, the movie shifts into a sequence of flashbacks that eventually land in the 1960s in a rural Iranian village (incidentally, the film was shot in Turkey as Keshavarz had been banned from filming in Iran after her second feature project), a scene that is astounding in its brilliant rendering and performance. The flashbacks reveal that Leila and her mother are bound together by their rebellious spirit. With the father’s chronic heart condition making it impossible to continue his medical,career as the family breadwinner, Shirin manages to earn her GED and license as a realtor at the same time. Her instinctive knowledge of the needs of immigrant homeowners-to-be propel her into a sales star. But, there is a traumatic past that has been locked away for many years. The movie lands in the 1960s, when her marriage was arranged while Shirin was in her teens.
While the film’s acting is excellent on all fronts, it is the performance of newcomer Kamand Shafiesabet (who came to the U.S. from Iran for the first time, as part of Sundance) that is astounding in its understated brilliance. In the interview, Keshavarz says, “My mother was very particular when I was making this film that she come meet the actress who played the young version of her,” adding that she wanted to be assured that the young Shirin not be portrayed as a victim.
Keshavarz says that it was among the last roles she cast for the film, given that she wanted someone who was 14 and from Iran. She originally had cast Shafiesabet’s older sister for the role but with the lengthy production schedule being delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the sister was turning 18 and would have been too old for the role, as Keshavarz had specified. “I remembered she had a younger sister but I thought she was too young. But, by the time we were making the film she was no longer too young and she had hit puberty,” she says, adding that Shafiesabet told her, “I never kissed a boy but [in the film] I’m giving birth.”
Unquestionably, Shafiesabet’s performance is stunning. “She has such technically difficult scenes,” Keshavarz says. For example, “she has a three-page monologue direct to camera address in one shot. She was such a great find.”
The Persian Version enters the canon of excellent films that have highlighted the stories of various immigrant groups. “I never felt there was one of our community, particularly about Muslims where they are not building Bombs or something,” Keshavarz says. She notes that there have many amazing films shot in Iran but, as an immigrant story, The Persian Version was different in its scope. “I never felt there was a film that bridged the two generations both back home and here so this is the kind of story I always wanted to see,” she adds.
Noora Niasari’s feature film debut Shayda wasn’t necessarily made in response to the current uprising occurring in Iran following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in police custody but it also is a testament to its power that such a background lingers in the viewer’s mind while watching it. Although one doesn’t “watch” Shayda as much as one experiences it. The film just won the Audience Award in Sundance’s World Cinematic Dramatic Competition.
Chronicling the titular character’s life after her move to a woman’s shelter along with her daughter Mona (a star-making performance from 7-year-old Selina Zahednia), Shayda plays out like a tense thriller inspired by the director’s own childhood experiences. Zar Amir Ebrahim, an exceptional actress, is one with the frame. Niasari’s use of its square shape is cleverly reminiscent of old home movies while portraying Shayda’s inner struggle to break free of the patriarchal oppression and violence to she has been subjected.
When Hossein (Osamah Sami) is granted visitation rights, Shayda’s life is thrown into disarray. Ebrahimi’s haunting performance conveys the true terror and anguish at being forced to play by a rulebook that is actively working against them. As she leaves her daughter every Saturday afternoon with her father, she fears for the worst. After all, anytime Hossein appears onscreen, he towers over her, dropping his nice guy persona, as soon as he holds Mona’s hand in his to threaten and dismiss her.
Hossein isn’t the only villain, though. Shayda is constantly reminded of her many alleged failures as a woman, a mother and an Iranian national. No matter what she does, whether it’s grocery shopping or working on her case with a translator, she is always exposed and judged by the people around her, threatening to reveal her whereabouts to Hossein and her community.
The film arises from the director’s childhood experiences, when she was five years old, and living with her mother in an Australian women’s shelter. Despite being separated from Iran, Niasari learned Farsi, as well as celebrations such as Nowruz and engaged with Persian dance and poetry. “Above all, she taught me about the resilience and strength of Iranian women,” the director wrote in an artistic statement. “Women like my mother were ostracized for seeking basic human rights. The right to ask for divorce, to have custody over their children, to choose how they dress, to dance in the streets, to let their hair flow in the wind and exhale. … She found these freedoms for us in Australia but our nostalgia for our homeland never ceases.”
As harrowing as Shayda’s predicament is, it is never without glimmers of hope. Niasari isn’t interested in depicting an exploitative, conventional abusive relationship where death is a very real possibility. Shayda is at its brightest when mother and daughter are on screen together, participating in Persian traditions such as Norwuz, as well as dancing and cooking. Shayda is accused of being too much of a Western woman and forsaking her origins, but she also understands that it is an important part of her story, one she must share with Mona, as painful as it can be. The women’s shelter also gives them a sense of community, led by Leah Purcell’s brilliant performance as Joyce. Her warmth and kindness permeate the screen as she encourages Shayda to explore herself and what lies ahead of her.
Slowly but surely, Shayda allows herself to meet up with friends. She even considers resuming her studies and entertains a possible relationship with a new man. Those bubbles of fresh air, although more formulaic than the cinema-vérité we have been watching so far, are a much-welcome complement to the moments of terror and despair looming over the movie. Sure, some of them do not end in a satisfactory manner, but they also do help bring the movie to a terrifying, thrilling close.
Ultimately, it is hard not to be moved by the love between mother and daughter as Mona proudly recites the names of the different parts of Nowruz’s offerings and mirrors her mother’s traditional dance moves. Unapologetically resilient and devastatingly simple, Shayda is a compelling articulation of the human spirit’s resilience and what happens when we care for one another.
The bonds of three women spanning three generations are at the heart of an understated intimate, candid, insightful Joonam, a first-person documentary directed by Sierra Urich.
Urich, who lives in Vermont, is a Persian-American filmmaker. Her mother and grandmother are from Iran and her father was born in the U.S. At the beginning of the film, Urich is in her kitchen on a snowy day, in the midst of learning the Farsi language. She had never learned the language in her childhood. She was four years old when she met her grandparents for the first time and her connection to her Iranian heritage has been limited to foods, holiday celebrations and family photos.
Now, as an adult, she wants to expand and engage with the roots of her identity that is not based in mysterious exoticism but rather in the histories of her mother and grandmother, to make a concrete connection to Iran. Urich weaves a documentary fabric that is frequently witty and as endearing as the film title emphasizes (Joonam is the Farsi word for endearment). But, there also are moments of frustration, which are not just incidental emotions for Urich, who is proud of her connection to the Iranian diaspora. Knowing that the idea of going to Iran was too dangerous because of the geopolitical crises and the Islamic Republic’s oppression targeting women, Urich felt the urgent need to gather the stories from her mother and grandmother. Just as the Iranian government has clamped down on protestors who have been setting the platform for an eventual revolution to liberate the country and the culture, such personal testaments take on even greater significance.
Mitra Samimi, her mother, came to the U.S. in 1979 for college, shortly after the Shah was ousted from power during the Revolution. At the time, she had not imagined that she would never be able to return to Iran, while the Islamic Republic was in power. It would be 16 years before she would see her parents. Urich’s grandmother, Behjat Samimi, who died last year at the age of 90, was married at the age of 14 to a soldier. After raising a family in Isfahan, she and her husband would retire to a small farm with her husband.
“There’s a personality difference between my mother and grandmother,” Urich says in an interview with The Utah Review. “My grandmother was much more free spirited and gregarious and performative in some ways. And my mother is cautious and private. She is an artist, poet and a philosopher. They are very different personalities while also both being fiercely independent women.”
The film clearly represents this counterpoint, which complicates the process for Urich, as she explores their stories. “When I started this film I was coming from a much more innocent place,” Urich says, “where I knew that my grandmother was wanting to open up about some of her girlhood stories. My mom had beckoned me home for that reason to spend the summer with them, with a camera to gather those stories. And, it would ultimately become a three-generational coming-of-age film but I didn’t think that the film would touch on my life so much,”
It is that challenging process which potentially carries meaningful epiphanies not just for women in the Iranian diaspora but also for first- and second-generation children in immigrant families. The immediate focus is on assimilating into American culture and society but there also is the risk where not being fluent in the originating language can limit opportunities to learn more about the heritage and legacy of elders, who might only be able to speak in broken English. However, as children of immigrants move into adulthood, the urge to reconnect with the roots of their families’ homelands can become powerful.
“And it wasn’t until I really got into the edit that I was looking at that footage just coming off that summer that was beautiful but also had become deeply frustrating,” Urich explains. “It had brought up a lot for me concerning my Persian identity — my lack of connection or access to Iran. I saw this footage about me trying to make a film with my family and getting the transcripts back, finally seeing what they’re saying in front of me, without me really understanding.”
This precisely made Joonam unique in its documentary treatment, as Urich realized that her process of making this film was key to why it became — about a child and grandchild of immigrants trying to carve out her own identity while making a deeper connection to her mother and grandmother. Hence, her grandmother achieved her independence through marriage in her teen years and her mother who found her own independence by leaving Iran and going to college, unfortunately at a time before she realized that she would never be able to return to Iran. For Urich, this magnified the problem of accessing identity and heritage. There already was the authoritarian regime in Tehran but there was yet another layer, as she continued trying to learn Farsi so she could communicate, especially with her grandmother and the stories she wanted to share.
“When I had seen films or TV shows about the immigrant experience, I had never identified with them because I always felt the narrative was about people who speak one language and follow the culture at home while outside in school and with peers it becomes another thing but yet the characters can fit into both places,” Urich explains. “But, for me it was never like that. My home life felt just like my school life and my peer life.”
In the film, Urich’s mother worries that some of the stories will endanger her, if they are included in the film. In one scene Mitra cuts off the grandmother who is telling Urich a story about how her grandfather was martyred — the term she used to correct when Urich asked about the details of how he was murdered.
“My grandmother was Baha’i, a religious minority who have been persecuted in Iran,” Urich says. “She had an immense amount of pride in being a Baha’i woman and while my mother was raised in that household, she is not a particularly religious person. So what you are also seeing is the deep pride that my grandmother had of being a grandchild of a martyr, along with the fear that my mom has of not wanting to pass on that trauma to me and not wanting me to be endangered by that history because she is worried that it will implicate me in some way.”
In its own way, Joonam accomplishes what also was integral to The Persian Version and Shayda, both narrative features about strong-willed Iranian women. These stories also broaden the context which Urich says matters, especially with the recent uprisings led by women in Iran. “It also is important to remember that this current regime in Iran has been in power for 40 years but before that while life in Iran was very different, there were still gender inequities under the Shah in the way there were gender inequities in the US in the sixties and seventies as well,” she explains. “And it think it is important to see what is going on in Iran today as a warning to the U.S. because women’s rights are being stripped away every day and this is not a situation that is limited to the Middle East or limited to a particular religion so this is about power and control and we’re seeing that play out on women’s bodies all over the globe.”
Urich sees the stories of her mother and grandmother as adding to the cumulative testament not only about Iranian women but elsewhere around the world where men in positions of power are doing everything possible to control women’s bodies — whether it is that women must wear a hijab or they cannot wear a hijab in public, or if women don’t have reproductive rights or they do, or dictates about how women should dress.
“Their success is our success in the U.S, too,” Urich says. “I am so deeply proud to be associated with them and I hope that the women in the U.S. can be inspired in our own fight that we are facing, regarding policy that is being written to oppress us here as well.”
Urich’s broadening of the context enriches the appreciation for the themes presented in Joonam. Some reviews have indicated disappointment that the film did not match up to what they imagined a Middle East story, especially about Iran, should be. “This film is seen in the context of what is happening in Iran today and it is deeply connected to the experience of someone living in the diaspora,” she explains, “and the experience of the last 40 years. Maybe people are paying more attention now but we’ve also been experiencing this for decades.”