‘The Persian Version’ Director Maryam Keshavarz on Capturing Iran’s Culture and History Through Three Generations of Women

In Maryam Keshavarz’s Sundance Audience Award winner The Persian Version, the choices, traumas and joys of multiple Iranian and Iranian American women are traced through a single bloodline.

For the writer-director, the project is a deeply personal one, charting the emotional truth of her own experiences and that of her family while straddling life in America and Iran during periods of intense Islamophobia and anti-Iranian sentiment as well as restrictions on cultural and women’s rights.

The film is told primarily through the perspective of Leila (Layla Mohammadi), a young, queer Iranian-American woman and filmmaker who discovers she’s pregnant after one unexpected night with a man. It’s a shocker in more ways than one, particularly for her mother, Shireen (Niousha Noor), who — along with remaining emotionally distant from her daughter — has harbored queerphobic feelings about Leila’s romantic relationships with women.

When Leila’s father lands in the hospital, Shireen assigns her daughter to taking care of her grandmother Mamanjoon (Bella Warda), seemingly only extending the silent wall that has grown between them. But after Leila discovers a family secret, she begins to unravel the complex realities and truths of the women in her family across time, cultures and two countries.

Ahead of The Persian Version‘s wide theatrical release on Nov. 2, Keshavarz spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about portraying the complicated generational relationships among one family’s women, dispelling Western stereotypes about Iranian culture and how she navigated portraying the history and culture of Iran while being banned from filming in the country.

You start this film in a place of tension — a young woman dealing with the homophobia of her mother — but that’s just one piece of the story and woman. Can you talk about starting from a place that might immediately turn off your audience, especially queer audiences, to one of your leading characters?

It was something I fought a lot for because there was this feeling of, “Oh my god, is this character so unlikable that people will just cringe and that’s it? They’re going to be out?” But it was really important for me that we do start with that because part of the whole thing is that we think we know people. We judge people in our families, in society. We dismiss them, or we become emotionally distant from them. But what if there’s a whole world behind that, that we don’t know? Particularly our mothers because they hold so much of the cyclical trauma of our cultures, literally, in their bodies. There’s been so many things about the transportation of trauma in DNA and maternal DNA.

It was really important for me to start there, then for the audience to be disarmed, just like the character is in learning the secret. I want the audience to mimic that experience of being stripped of all of our preconceived notions and then actually not only caring about this person, but at the end weeping for them. I think that was kind of my strategy, and it’s a challenging one for sure. It’s a risky one, because I know, even myself, that that was a difficult scene to direct truthfully for both sides. There’s so much there that’s not even about that. That’s just a tiny iceberg, and beneath that is a whole entire history. It was a challenge for sure, and it was actually quite emotional for me to do that.

But then, the process took over of this disarmament and really, more than anything, empathy. To try not to understand people from the point of view of today — 2023 — but what it was like for someone then. I tell people, don’t think of your parents as a 74-year-old. What were they like at 14, 12, 10, or 17? Really challenge yourself to think about that. That was a challenge for me in writing this and casting it.

I cast someone who was actually 14 to play that role. I think if I had maybe cast someone who was 25 playing 14, you wouldn’t have that same emotion. That’s really the age of what that person went through. Even the father having to be strong and become a man. Within patriarchal societies, men are also trapped in what they have to do. He has to become a man at 11. That’s a child and so much burden is put upon him. Then, of course, structure plays a big role in how and when we learn information. I wanted it at the end to be — it’s funny at the end, and then there’s a gut punch.

But I totally get that, particularly with the queer community, that would be the case. But I’m really satisfied. I feel like it’s really important for people who are from a bicultural background, who also get it in a way that maybe others don’t. Sometimes, it might be challenging for others who don’t have that experience, but for us who are, we’re all about intersectionality. This is just one part of the story.

How much of making this film was for you about directly calling out those stereotypical preconceptions of Iranian culture when it comes to issues like homophobia and women’s rights, and how much was it just about telling a story about your culture the way you know and understand it?

I think it was both. [This film is] something we haven’t seen before and that’s specifically why I wanted to make it. I was born in Brooklyn after my parents came here. I grew up in a very Iranian community, even though I lived in America. I learned to be American by watching movies and TV sitcoms — I loved Good Times, and economically we were different from our neighbors, so I felt the connection of that [TV] family. But I never felt reflected. I felt vilified in every aspect, be it from when there was the hostage crisis; then we became the “axis of evil”; then we became the Muslim Ban. None of this stuff was reflective to who I was. Not the culture I had here, not the culture I had back home.

I’ve also lived back and forth my whole life. I wasn’t just living in America. Most Iranians don’t go back. But in America, people had the craziest idea of what Iran was like, and I’d be like, “No, half the university is women. There’s more women filmmakers. Women fight the patriarchy every day there.” And in Iran, they had crazy ideas of what America was like. I constantly had to translate both of those. So I thought, “You know what? Let me do a story that brings both of these misconceptions together.” That’s why I framed it within the idea of a couple that used to be together that breaks up and now hates each other.

And I knew that we needed someone to guide us through this crazy story in a fun way. I hate films that start with historical footage. It has no point of view. But this is Layla’s crazy brain having to navigate so much. In second grade, I was in Iran and in America. My first half of second grade was in New York and my second half was in Iran when it became an Islamic culture, and I was hated in both. So I wanted to show you the process of how she became an artist and what influenced her.

I wanted to enter in a fun way to show you what she’s about and to [show] how important culture was for this character. She literally was smuggling tapes into Iran, so this is about how transformative art is, even across boundaries. Cyndi Lauper, Prince, Michael Jackson coming into Iran, it was a revelation for people and that connection of culture continues. Then the story settles and it becomes a mother-daughter story within the context of those two cultures.

You also have the structure of the secret. You can make films about your communities, but they still have to have a certain structure, and I wanted the structure to be unexpected. It’s around a secret, but then it’s about three generations of women, and each woman tells a story very differently with a different genre. There’s the madcap rom-com energy, the spaghetti western, and you have the neorealist film. That’s me, my influences as an artist, but I also wanted to reflect the actual characters in the story.

I’m playful, and we never get to be playful, so I said, fuck it. I got all the tools at my disposal. There are no rules. There are rules in the structure, but within the structure, I took a lot of risks. Amongst all that madness, all the epic qualities of this film — it goes over 40 years to two different countries — I tried to have an emotional through line. I wanted to make sure at the heart of it, it was a daughter trying to understand who she is, and you can’t really understand yourself until you understand your history.

Part of how you challenge Americans’ understanding of Iran and Iranian culture is through your locations. Can you talk about how you chose your locales and navigated portraying the country — including its culture and history — through its places?

For a couple reasons we didn’t shoot in Iran. I’m banned from Iran after making my first film [2011’s Circumstance], but more than anything, that old Shiraz from the ’60s doesn’t exist anymore, unfortunately. Most of it’s been knocked down and converted, developed. So I was searching for old historic cities and I spent a lot of time location scouting. I had a queer Turkish friend who’s a playwright, and I was like, “Come with me for three weeks, and we’re going to scour the country!” So we went to this region, and that’s how we found Mardin [Turkey]. It looks like when my parents emigrated to America. My grandfather would send my parents Super 8 videos of Shiraz so that they wouldn’t miss it. If you see my film, The Color of Love, it has that in the film because it’s how my parents stayed connected. So when I saw that I was like, “OK, that’s old Shiraz.”

The challenge was to find the village where my parents are sent to, away from the big city. I looked at so many villages, but my mother had said that this village was so remote. There was nothing there. I looked and I looked, and one day, three weeks into scouting, someone said, “There’s a village beyond the monastery if you go down this dirt road.” We arrived right at sunrise and there was a little boy with flip-flops going up the side of the mountain with the sheep. It was all these houses built into the mountain. It’s a 2000-year-old village that not only was completely forgotten by the local authorities — only 20 families lived here — it was the most remote place I’ve been to. It took my breath away and I was like, “This is what this young woman experienced when she said she went to a remote village.” Even to get to her house is such a challenge. It’s at the top of a mountain. I tried to walk to the top and it was so hard. So I said this is it. This is my space.

The family home, where they go and bring the tape and they dance — in the airport, it was very scary because I never knew if I would get busted; it’s very monochromatic, very shiny — it’s this beautiful earth tone. It’s very much like my great-grandparents’ home. Everyone’s in Technicolor clothes because they can’t contain the joy that people feel at home, even if the government tries to suppress and repress you. They cannot. That Cyndi Lauper tape comes out and it’s Technicolor shit. It’s a little bit Bollywood-esque because as a kid in Iran, American music was influential, but also Bollywood films were very influential. They used to sneak in the tapes, so it was a blend of Bollywood and Cyndi Lauper. At the end, our actress who plays the mother rerecords “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” The Persian Version with Rostam Batmanglij from Vampire Weekend. They use all Persian instrumentation, it has Persian words. It’s a complete closure of the story. It’s American music into Iran, and now Iran has Persia-fied “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.”

You break the fourth fall, but only with certain characters who are all women. It’s interesting in the context of your exploration of which generations feel like they do or don’t have to be silent and what fuels that silence. How did you determine when someone should have a voice?

Such a big part of when I was writing the story is I kept thinking, “Who has the right to tell stories, even in our culture?” When I approached my mom earlier in my life to do something vaguely about this, she was like, “No, we can’t show our family shame.” Later on when my father passed away and my grandmother passed away, she became the matriarch and she said, “It’s time to tell our story.” It really made me think. My mom was a writer of our destiny. She wrote her own life. She came to America, she changed her destiny. But yet, her strength was her silence. She kept so much inside as a way to survive, and that was the reality of what it was in real time.

But I wanted to imbue the narrator with the power to break the fourth wall, and only two people have the power. It’s our main narrator Layla, who’s the one navigating us to the story and who is a writer in the story. I wanted to also have the mother demand that her voice be heard. She literally demands that she breaks the fourth wall and says, “I’m not going to let you tell my story. I’ve left this country, I left everything behind — my food, culture, the smells — to start something new and you don’t get to tell me who I am.” I wanted to imbue that in a very philosophical way, even if she was not able to speak. She did all those things and gave voice in many ways. That’s what I was trying to do with allowing the mother to break the wall. Not only allowing her, she demands. She takes the reins.

We don’t even know as an audience how much of that ever got told to the daughter either. She’s telling us as the audience, so that’s a good tension of what does the daughter know, what does she not know? Some people ask, “Does she know?” and I say it doesn’t matter. It’s the character demanding and then it’s the reality underneath all that. In a sense of that device, I only gave it to two people and I thought it was [an] important tool to give that character, even though she stays silent. She doesn’t say silent to the audience. She tells the audience her story, and the story she was never able to tell because that’s what we can do in cinema.

In real life, my father died way before my daughter was ever born. But in cinema, I can let him live. My mother was never able to narrate the story, but here in this film, she gets to. There are all these things that we can do that’s not necessarily the truth. It’s not a document of my life, yet it’s truthful to my life and my desires of what I couldn’t have.

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