“The Persian Version” Writer/Director Maryam Keshavarz on the Joys of Iranian American Culture
The Persian Version won both the Audience Award and the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award in the U.S Dramatic Competition at Sundance this year, and for good reason. The film is a feel-good dramedy that combines stories of traditional Iranian culture with those of the Iranian American experience with a decidedly modern touch. The story follows Leila (Layla Mohammadi), a queer Iranian American working to keep her parents and many brothers who love her at a distance while navigating her ever more complicated personal life. The story highlights the complicated bond between Leila and her mother, Shireen (Niousha Noor), whose sacrifices—many for her family—include many secrets about her own past trauma from Leila. As intense as some aspects of the story are, audiences have embraced The Persian Version, which is a fun, dance-filled, and joyous ode to a modern Iranian American family.
Much of the film is based on the life of writer/director Maryam Keshavarz, who herself was the only girl in a family with seven boys. It is in the specificity of her story that The Persian Version thrives because viewers from all over the world have found a connection in some aspect of the family or their cultural traditions.
The Credits caught up with Keshavarz at the Middleburg Film Festival. She reveals how she crafted a story that has found appreciation from such a wide audience and shares how the cast and crew grew to feel like family.
Your film is so filled with joy, and as you said, you were moved and struck by the sense of joy your family was able to find, even in difficult times. Can you speak to a few of the ways you injected your film with that joy and some of the responses you’ve gotten from audiences?
Honestly, I was really only interested in making this film if I could show that element of our culture and of my family. Growing up, every time you heard the word Iranian, it was somehow related to terrorism, and it just was not my experience as an Iranian American growing up here. It was just so skewed. I always say, when I introduce the film, “I’m sorry, you get to spend two hours with my family, for better or for worse.” The greatest aspect of showing this is having people who are Irish saying, “It’s just like my family,” or having people who are Mexican-American, or Vietnamese, or German, or whatever, who are different than their family for some reason, or they had issues with their mom, really relating to the film.
In a way, families across cultures are similar in crucial ways…
It is so important to me to show that we’re not so different. If you’ve never interacted with or seen people who are different than you, you can so easily dehumanize them, and so many bad things can result from that. If you feel close to a people, there’s just such a humanity and a connection that can happen. What I wanted to do with this film was create a connection, and I thought the joy and fun in our culture could really bring people in. Within our community, people are so proud because they’ve never gotten to see themselves in a light that they feel is so truthful. It’s been quite emotional, showing it to non-Iranian and Iranian families in the United States.
The movie shows both Iranian and Iranian-American characters, which is rare.
That’s never been done. There are lots of films from Iran, which has great cinema, from Kiarostami to Farhadi to Dariush Mehrjui, who unfortunately was killed recently. You have great Iranian American filmmakers, like Ramin Bahrani or Desiree Akhavan, but there was never anything that connected our two worlds. One of the ways to show our journey as Americans is to honor where we come from.
Silence is both a strength and a weakness, depending on how and when it’s used. Can you talk about your use of silence in the film?
Silence is really a theme in the film. American culture is so much about therapy and about posting everything we do. We overshare in many ways. The thoughts I had around silence are that when you go through a very difficult time, sometimes not rehashing it, putting that trauma in a box, and moving forward is such an important element of older generations. That’s especially true for my parents and the baby boomer era. In every part of the world, they’ve experienced such great traumas, and that’s how they’ve been able to move forward. I thought that was such an interesting concept and how that was handed down to me. Through the filming, I explore different moments in which silence plays an important part. There’s a lot of verbosity and playfulness in the lead character, who not only tells you about her family but about where she comes from between Iran and America, as a playful interplay of her biculturalism, but also, a lot of the film relies on those things that are not said, and in the moments that are so quiet. It’s a play between that, particularly in the mother’s backstory, when we go back to Iran. In that section, there’s very little dialogue. I also play a lot with the environment and silence and how you deal with trauma, even as it’s happening.
There’s some great choreography in the movie, and it gives the feeling that not only the characters are close, but everyone in the production became close during filming. Is that true?
There are some things that we had our choreographer do, especially the “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” sequence, and that’s because that has a lot of dancers and was rehearsed for a week or two. Then, for another scene, the actress Niousha Noor said, “I have an idea. This is a family that’s so tight. They would have their own dance. Can we show you something?” She had choreographed, taped, and sent this dance to the brothers, and they were all dancing on their days off together and practicing. When they came to show it to me, they had rehearsed it for a week. I thought it was so fun. Niousha, the actress who plays the mother, had done all that. That’s why, if you notice in the film, that dance scene is mostly in one shot. There weren’t many cuts at all because we knew ahead of time with the choreography would be, so we planned it. And it was really fun because we thought it told the story of the family dynamic in a really nice way.
There’s also a powerful catharsis around trauma as part of the arc of your story.
Right. In the end, by speaking the name, there’s a moment where the trauma ends because we’re able to literally name that trauma. And with naming it, it brings new life. It goes from something dead that’s festering in some ways to something alive that can create hope. The name at the end of the film, Arezou, means hope. Arezou is a wish, actually, in Persian. It has many meanings, but Arezou is the concept of hope and a wish combined together. I wanted to leave the audience with that idea at the end.
The aspect of The Persian Version that goes back and forth between Iranian life with the mother’s story and Iranian American life with the daughter really opens up awareness about similarities and differences within families and within cultures.
I wanted that backstory, why people come to the US, to be really prevalent in this film. You look at your parents, and you judge them and wonder why they can’t be more modern. We don’t even practice empathy towards our own parents, but we expect our parents to practice empathy towards us as the next generation. We can never understand who we are unless we look at our parents’ journeys and see them as people. I think of my mother at 14 or my dad at 19, and in that light, everything shifts. You can really understand how trauma affects people’s lives and how it becomes ingrained in the next generation. So much of this film is about acknowledging that and finding a way to move beyond it. For me, this film was a practice in empathy, and I think that’s something this country needs right now desperately. We’ve become so fractured, and we judge and hate people we’ve never met. This film is to challenge you within your own family not to do that, and not to do that also within the greater landscape of American culture.
The Persian Version is in select theaters now nationwide.
For more upcoming films from Sony Pictures, check out these stories:
Featured image: Bijan Daneshmand as ALI REZA, Niousha Noor as SHIRIN, Chiara Stella as YOUNG LEILA in THE PERSIAN VERSION. Photo credit: Yiget Eken. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.