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‘The Persian Version’ Director Maryam Keshavarz on Creating a ‘Great Immigrant Story’ for Iranians

"The Persian Version"
Photo Credit: André Jäger

To be an immigrant is to be a writer, according to Iranian-American director Maryam Keshavarz, because as immigrants “you write your own story, you decide what’s your narrative.” Her latest feature, “The Persian Version,” explores that by tapping into one of the most complex narratives of all — that of mother and daughter. 

In “The Persian Version,” Iranian-American Leila (Layla Mohammadi) boldly challenges labels that society tries to project upon her while balancing and embracing her opposing cultures. When her family reunites for her father’s heart transplant, secrets and scandals are revealed that shed light on how Leila and her mother Shirin (Niousha Noor), with whom she has a complicated relationship, could be more alike than she realizes. 

Keshavarz spoke with Variety about how “The Persian Version” reflects the experiences of many Iranians and immigrants overall, and how pop culture helped bridge the gap between her two worlds — Iran and America. The film premieres Jan. 21 at Sundance.

What of your own life did you draw inspiration from for this film?

We always grew up with these big immigrant stories. “The Godfather” and “Joy Luck Club.” All these films, but it was never our stories. Not even remotely close to us. I’ve always wanted to do our great immigrant story that’s so Persian, that’s a mix of laughing, crying, dancing … and eating!

This film is based on my family. It really is our story. As a kid growing up, I really wanted to see our great immigrant story. We learned to be American by watching TV. I grew up in an insular community. All my parents’ friends were Persians. So you have your own world and you learn to be American through television. I just really felt like I never saw anything that represented us. I mean, I loved “Good Times” growing up because it was like this family struggling in New York and that seemed pretty close to us, or “Eight Is Enough.” When I got older, all these huge films that were so influential to me, from “The Godfather” to “Namesake” to “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” — I took a lot of joy in them. But I really wanted to see our stories up there. We’ve been vilified in Western media but we also come from a beautiful tradition of Iranian film.

I wanted something from our perspective of going back and forth, of being bicultural. I thought of doing something more autobiographical. Trump had just been elected, the Muslim ban and immigrants were being so vilified. I just felt compelled to tell a story that was nuanced and personal and flew in the face of the rhetoric that was being touted.

And I feel like any good story starts with a secret. 

Oh, and Persians are all about secrets.

Well, here’s the thing. When I was thinking about making an immigrant story, I thought, you know what’s so interesting? My mother is also a writer just like me in some ways. When you become an immigrant, you write your own story, you decide what’s your narrative. You reinvent yourself… So I really started to think of my mother and I as a sort of reflection of each other and all the stories of my mythology as an immigrant coming here. My family’s interesting because half of my brothers are born in Iran and half of us are born here. So even that experience is a very split one. But yeah, I started thinking about what it means to reinvent yourself.

I thought of the secret that did happen with my father. I thought of how that’s our identity in some ways, and it was blown up by my grandmother revealing this secret. It really started to make me think about immigrant identity. So I felt like that should be the heart of it. Like all of my films, women are always front and center. Every film I’ve ever made is about the resilience of women in difficult situations, be it patriarchal societies or governments that are not sympathetic to their situation. I don’t know how to write anything else. I’ve always written from the women’s perspective and I like to say the men in the film are a chorus, as they should be.

For there to be LGBTQIA+ representation as well in an Iranian film is so refreshing. 

You know it’s funny, I was talking to a friend of mine who is Iraqi and does a lot of drag performances and they were saying — we’re working on a project together — “Oh, do you think what we’re doing is gonna piss people off?” And I said, “You know what’s so interesting, our existence is itself radical. The fact that we say that we exist and that we’re full-fledged humans is itself a radical act.” I think just even having this character in some ways folded in the immigrant story in a Muslim context, in a Shia context, is radical. It was important for me that she [Leila] doesn’t reject her culture and she doesn’t reject her identity because of her queer identity. One doesn’t have to be traded for the other. They reside side by side in the film. I think the struggle is really one of family and living up to your mother’s expectations, especially, particularly when you’re the only daughter. I think a lot of people feel that. It was important for me to have this character. 

A mother-daughter relationship can come with a lot of tension. But an Iranian one? Or simply an immigrant/first-gen one, even more so.

I have a daughter who is 11 now. It’s about expectations or projections, all the things we didn’t get to do or wish we had done, we project onto the next generation. That’s the same thing when you’re an immigrant. You leave behind — like the young mother in the film says when she breaks the fourth wall — you leave behind your identity, your language, your food. You leave behind everything to start a whole new life. Of course that comes with expectations for what that life should be. And what their children’s life should be, to have a different life than they had. Of course, it makes sense. They’ve given so much up for us to have a different life than they had.

What was your goal with exploring motherhood through Shirin and Leila’s stories?

I think this film really is a film about choice. It’s a pro-choice film in many ways. I know people think pro-choice is about having an abortion. Pro-choice is about having a choice. The mother of the story [Shirin] never had a choice. She was forced to get married. She was forced into leaving school. Leila, of course, does not get pregnant on purpose. She does get pregnant by mistake. But she has a choice. She makes a conscious decision to be a mother. To me, it was important that that’s part of the conversation of choice. But also another thing is we have this idea that motherhood is innate in us and that we’re born into motherhood. I think that’s a struggle. It’s such a myth and some people don’t want to be mothers. Some people become mothers and they don’t know what the hell they’re doing and through the process they learn what it means to be a mother. The mythology is that you just know and that is not always the case for everybody. It’s a struggle to know what that means and thank God we have the ability to define what that means. I think that’s a difference in the two different cultures. People are still projecting onto Leila what it means. Oh, it means you’re straight or oh it means you should do that. She says no, I’m going to do it my way. That means she’s constantly fighting against the status quo. That is what binds the mother and daughter together, in every generation. Of course, women are fighting more now with the Islamic Republic and what is going on. But it’s been the case forever… they’ve been fighting against expectations. 

At a time when Iran is experiencing so much pain and conflict, especially the women of Iran, this was a beautiful film to watch. 

I think people are speaking their voice and it’s not just their story. It’s becoming an international story where people are stating that we are Iranian women too. I think that’s so beautiful. It’s been my whole career honestly, from “The Color of Love” to “Circumstance.” It’s the world I’ve always been interested in exploring for audiences. It’s a struggle. It’s been ongoing for women. As the film shows, from when I was a little kid, even when I was in high school or college … it was like you couldn’t show one piece of hair and then people would push the boundary. My cousins were so much braver than me. I didn’t want to get arrested. They were like “Nah, screw them!” and go to the parties. I’ve always been in awe of these women. But it’s a struggle they’ve been going through for 40 years of this regime, and with a previous regime in different ways. I’m so glad that their struggles and their voices are being heard and that we realize this is … a reflection of the international struggle for women. Like the actress [Kamand Shafieisabet] who plays young Shirin is 14… she was telling me how meaningful it is to see all these protests around the world as they struggle. 

Hopefully, this film can offer joy for Iranians too. The dance sequences especially, as well as the references to Cyndi Lauper and Googosh. It was rich with Iranian and American pop culture.

So much of the film is about pop culture and connectivity. You know, the film ends with the Persian version of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” It’s sung by the mother, played by Niousha Noor. It was a way for me to create the full circle. 

Pop culture is the way that I learned to be American. Pop culture is the way I taught Americans what Iran was about and what I learned about what Iran was. Dancing through the Iran-Iraq war when I was a little kid… and we would go back and forth [between Iran and the U.S.] and smuggle tapes. It was not just a tape. It was freedom. The second I would walk in [with the tape], we would be dancing. It was a sense of safety and joy. And that’s what this regime can never extinguish. They want to extinguish joy and that’s not possible. The Iranian people have always found a way to have joy.