Maryam Keshavarz’s sophomore feature, “The Persian Version,” premiered with pizzazz at Sundance this year. In-person screenings – even those starting at eight in the morning! – saw packed theaters, inviting audiences to laugh (and cry) each time. In this ode to the director’s own family, Keshavarz maps out the relational entanglements of a lesbian, Iranian American woman (played by fresh faces Layla Mohammadi and Chiara Stella) born to a household of seven boys, who — by some off-chance one-night-stand — becomes pregnant. In this heartfelt mother-daughter tale, Keshavarz invites her audiences on a rollercoaster of tenderness and tough love that spans from New York City to a village in Iran.
Following Sundance, “The Persian Version” has seen success as well. In the festival, the intergenerational drama walked away with the Audience Award and The Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award in the US Dramatic Competition. In more recent news, the production marks Sony Picture Classics’ second acquisition from the snow capped hills of Park City. But prior to all of the buzz, we had the pleasure of meeting Keshavarz in-person during the festival. In our conversation together, we began to parse apart her own autobiography from the story, queerness in Islam, and pandemic logistics in a diaspora tale.
How close is “The Persian Version” to your own life?
Oh, wow, that’s a sticky one. It’s quite close to my life. Some things are heightened for humor and some are not completely true. My father before my daughter was born, for instance. But the heart of the story is true. Everything about my mother is very, very true, and in that order.
And I did wear a burqatini [a burqa-made-bikini]. I did go to a Halloween party. Oh, stuff is real. I remember I was at a friend’s place — she’s an NPR journalist and was doing a home interview of a jazz musician — and I came out [of the closet]in my handmade burqatini. He said, “You’re not gonna go out like that, are you?” I said, “Why?” He remarked, “It is so offensive.” I shot back, “Yeah, that’s the point. It’s cultural commentary. It’s okay, I can do it. I’m from that part of the world.” (laughs)
So you have your own Hedwig.
At a different point in my life. It’s all mixed together. I was obsessed with “Hedwig” as a younger person. It first came out as a film when I was quite young, and then [I got interested in] the Broadway show. So “Hedwig” had to always come to my stories.
And the queerness.
The queerness, of course, yes. The painful breakups. You never know what happens after a breakup.
You’re like Taylor Swift in a way, making movies about your breakups.
Yes, exactly. Only this is more like a revenge movie, not a song. (laughs)
[“The Persian Version”] is also just a meditation on identity. And duality. [Leila] faces this duality of being Iranian and American, of being queer or straight, of being mother and daughter. She’s trying to synthesize all these elements of the dualities in her life.
So who do you identify with most in the movie?
Both [Leila and her mother]. I don’t think I could have written this any earlier in my life. I wrote this after I became a parent. And I realized, as mothers, we’re just faking it. We [children]criticize them; we put them on a pedestal. But really, they’re just regular people who are struggling to make ends meet, with their own desires and frustrations.
Originally, the story is much more about the whole family. As time went on, and I started to focus on the mother-daughter story as the main plot vehicle. And then from there, it was a real reflection about my mother, understanding how she affected me, understanding her as more three-dimensional, and seeing how the past influenced her behavior in the present. I became much more empathetic. It’s eye opening, to have to think about your parents as teenagers in a different country, before they even had the language that you share.
How did your mother and daughter react to this film?
My daughter is too young for this film; it’s not age-appropriate for her yet. But my mother and brothers came to the premiere. I was so nervous. Everyone’s nervous — for the critics, the buyers. But I was nervous for my family, honestly. One of my brothers said, “You really got the jewelry down.” Another who is a doctor said, “You finally cast someone as good-looking as me.” But I couldn’t find my mom. I looked for her at the premiere party. When I found her, she held my face and said, “You did me justice.” That was the best review ever.
For so long my mom didn’t talk about these things. Just little elements of it would come through. But in the last couple of years, she’s been saying, “it’s time for us to put away our shame and talk about our stories, as women.”
Where do you see your film fit in this larger tradition of Iranian cinema? So many of the filmmakers that immediately come to mind are men, like Asghar Farhadi, Abbas Kiarostami, and Jafar Panahi.
One of the reasons why I believed I could be a director was because I saw other women directors from Iran. I saw this Films from Iran series arranged by Barbara Scharres at the Gene Siskel Film Center Chicago [in undergrad]. I paid for a pass; I would bring my sandwiches to watch every movie. It was the first time I had seen female directors. There were three that year – basically half the program – and [the Film Center]brought them in-person. I had never seen a female director [before this], but here were all these women from Iran, making films.
9/11 would push me to become a filmmaker myself.
What do you mean?
I was actually in academia for my PhD at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. I was on sabbatical at Berkeley that year. Then 9/11 happened. All of my family is in New York. All this anti-Muslim, anti-Middle East rhetoric felt very similar to when I was a kid during the US hostage crisis in Iran. So I thought I really need to change the narrative. I just literally dropped academia. I made a film, during the era that we were sequestered in San Francisco, about my experience. And with that film, I applied to go to film school, I won a full scholarship to go to NYU. So I left behind academia and never looked back after 911.
Something I found striking about “The Persian Version” is that you don’t shy away from elements that are seemingly contradictory – like the references to Shia Islam and queerness.
In a lot of narratives, there are stories of a culture clash, where a queer character has to leave behind their previous generation or they find their culture oppressive. I’m interested in this idea that we can take elements of our culture that are important to us and leave behind the parts that are retrograde, or even change those. I had a huge debate with one of the actors about this. He said, “Why did you identify as us? We should put Islam behind us.” And I said, “Why? Why can’t we change what it means – in the same way that the Episcopal Church has women priests? Can you change and take parts of the culture you grew up in and adapt it to the more modern world?”
When I came out, I never rejected being Iranian or being Muslim. For me, I was all of those things, simultaneously. It was important for me that [Leila] be the same. In our family, I think magic realism is a way to create hope. When you come to a new country as an immigrant with very little money, there are a lot of challenges. It is a beautiful thing to think that there’s someone watching of you. I wanted to use that magical quality.
Despite the magical realism, reality hits hard for Leila, like her pregnancy.
[Magical realism] only works if it’s very grounded, like in the everyday immigrant experience. (laughs)
We talked about how “The Persian Version” fits into traditions of Iranian cinema; then what about diaspora cinemas, like Asian American film?
I used to be the head volunteer coordinator at CAAMFest in San Francisco. That was a big influence. That was my first real foray into ideas of bicultural cinema. When “Better Luck Tomorrow” (Justin Lin, 2002) played, [my team and I]all watched it together and were like, “What is this? This is brilliant.” “Who killed Vincent Chin?” (Ronald Ebens, 1982) also made me think, “Wow, that’s such a revelation of a documentary about identity in the greater American landscape, about biculturalism and cinema.”
You mentioned in the Q&A that you deliberately chose diaspora Iranian actors and actresses. Could you tell me more about that process?
I spent two years casting. Everything’s on Zoom these days, but I did remote casting for my first film. For that, I did a lot of auditions on Skype. People thought I was crazy. (laughs)
My actors are from all over, like England, Belgium, Canada, the US. Even within the US, they’re from all over: San Francisco, Florida, Boston, Texas. We’re all bound by Iranian diaspora identity. And we really became a family making the film.
You have so many actors coming in from everywhere. The logistics must have been insane.
We made it through the pandemic. (chuckles) We had a 31-day shoot. It’s quite epic, as you can see, there are a lot of scenes with 14 people or more. We’ve only had one case of COVID-19 on set, but I was also maniacal about masking.
This must have been a lot of work. What’s up next for you?
I have a TV series prepared about a true story of a 19th century king who came out as queer as a teenager. I have a couple of other bigger projects that are somewhat related to Iran. There are others in the making, but those are the projects I’ve already written.