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    With ‘The Persian Version,’ filmmaker Maryam Keshavarz spills family secrets
    • October 19, 2023

    Maryam Keshavarz thought she was just sharing funny stories at a party.

    About how as a little girl she smuggled Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” into Iran on a trip from her home in New York City to visit relatives there in the land of her parents.

    About the strange sense of rootlessness that comes from being an Iranian American with your feet and heart in two different cultures.

    About the jaw-dropping secret her mother and father had kept from Keshavarz and her seven brothers for years, a secret that explained so much about her relationship with her mother.

    Layla Mohammadi as Leila in “The Persian Version.” (Photo by Yiget Eken, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

    Writer-director Maryam Keshavarz based her new movie “The Persian Version” on her own family’s stories and secrets. (Photo by Maarten de Boer/Contour by Getty Images)

    Niousha Noor as Shireen in “The Persian Version.” (Photo by Yiget Eken, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

    Bijan Daneshmand as Ali Reza, Niousha Noor as Shireen, and Chiara Stella as young Leila in “The Persian Version.” (Photo by Yiget Eken, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

    Layla Mohammadi as Leila, Niousha Noor as Shireen in “The Persian Version.” (Photo by Yiget Eken., courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)



    Just stories at a party. And then:

    “I didn’t know one of the people I was telling was a producer from Cinereach,” says Keshavarz, who a little over 20 years ago left a career in academia to become a filmmaker. “They were like, ‘Oh my god, that’s so funny. You have to write that.’

    I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t know,’” she says. “I was kind of skirting the issue, and they kept stalking me. Then I said, ‘Well, I’ll write it if it can be a comedy.’ They’re like, ‘Great idea!’”

    In a way, “The Persian Version, which opened in Los Angeles and New York City on Friday, Oct. 20, and expands to more cities on each of the next two Fridays, was the perfect film for her to make, Keshavarez says.

    “After 9/11, I left academia to go into cinema to tell a more nuanced version of stories from the Middle East,” she says. “I made a couple of films, I worked in TV. Then, when Trump came into office, there was a lot of xenophobic rhetoric, a lot of ideas about the Muslim ban.

    “I thought, ‘You know, if I think about it, I’ve never been represented in cinema or TV,” Keshavarz says. “It’s something I’d always longed for as a child.

    “It’s time to show being American has many different faces,” she says. “I really want to tell an American story that showed our life here, and also our history where we come from, and there had never been such a film made.”

    Keshavarz was in, but first she had to tell her mother, Azar Keshavarz, and seven brothers – their father had died when she was 22 – and get them to sign their life rights over to her.

    “They were like, ‘Oh, well, I don’t know how I will look,’” she says of the seven brothers, all but one of whom let her use them in the film. “I said, ‘Don’t worry. I promise you one thing. I will look the worst in this, and I will poke fun more at myself than anyone else.’”

    Drawn from life

    Part of the fun in “The Persian Version” comes from the twists and turns of the relationship between daughter Leila (Layla Mohammadi) and mother Shireen (Niousha Noor).

    Still, it won’t hurt to share that the catalyst for the story – Leila, having just split from her wife, gets pregnant by a guy she meets at a Halloween party – is just one story taken directly from Keshavarz’s own life.

    “It’s more than semi-autobiographical,” Keshavarz says, laughing, of the film that won both the Audience Award and Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the Sundance Film Festival this year. “All of these things are true, I think they’re just in different orders.

    “Like, I knew it would be a comedy, but in real life, my father died when I was 22. He had the heart transplant, just like in the film. I did meet the father of my daughter at a Halloween party. I have seven brothers, not eight like in the movie. I grew up with one bathroom. All those things are true.

    “My mother’s story is 100 percent true, like almost to a T,” she says. “So (writing the screenplay) was really more about guiding the story. I think I realized as I was writing, it’s writing as a way to understand where we come from.

    “Then I thought about the secret,” Keshavarz says about her mother’s life-changing decision both in the film and real life. “And I realized, oh, there’s another writer in the story and it’s not me. It’s my mother because she’s writing her own story.”

    Mothers and daughters

    Making the film allowed Keshavarz to recreate the chapters of her life with different looks for each of the three women it focuses on at different times.

    For Layla, the stand-in for Keshavarz, the bright colors of ’80s and ’90s sitcoms and music videos fill the screen. The film opens and closes with a Bollywood-esque dance number to “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” with the extended family in Iran. (Former Vampire Weekend multi-instrumentalist did the movie’s music, including a Persian-influenced arrangement of Lauper’s hit at the end of the film.)

    For grandmother Mamanjoon (Bella Warda), who spills the family secret, there’s a kind of spaghetti Western quality to the chapter shot in a remote and dusty village when Shireen, married and a mother at 14, makes a decision that will change the course of the family. (For the Iranian scenes, Keshavarz shot in Turkey. Since 2011, when “Circumstance,” her film about two Iranian girls falling in love also won the Sundance Audience Award, she’s been banned from returning to Iran.)

    For Shireen, who in the United States must act to save the family after her husband Ali Reza (Bijan Daneshmand) grows ill, Keshavarz looked to mid-century Italian cinema.

    “My mother’s like the typical neo-realist film,” she says. “She was very much still holding the weight of the past with her.”

    Given how fraught the relationship is between the mother and daughter in the film, one wonders how Keshavarz’s own mother reacted when she saw their lives transposed to the screen.

    “I only finished the film two days before Sundance so no one saw it. Even me,” she says. “And then I couldn’t find her after the premiere. Went to the party, and 200 people are dancing and talking, and my mom, she’s very little, she comes up and grabs my face.

    “I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God, in front of everyone, she’s going to slap me!’” Keshavarz says, laughing. “And she says, ‘You did us justice.’

    “That was like the best review, because there’s so much in there that’s personal.”

    Universal lives

    To Keshavarz, “The Persian Version” offers different places for viewers to connect.

    “I think the film is so much about resilience, particularly women’s resilience within difficult times,” she says. “You know, when they’re coming into (Iran), and she’s smuggling the tapes, it’s very monochromatic. It’s like the oppression of the government.

    “So when they go to the family home, and she emerges with a tape of ‘Girls Just Want To Have Fun,’ it’s Technicolor, it’s so vibrant. I want to show no matter what you can’t extinguish joy.”

    Iranian American audiences have seen in it pieces of their own stories, but Keshavarz believes no matter one’s heritage, the themes of family and generations and love and secrets will resonate.

    “I always apologize to the audiences,” she says. “You’re about to spend the next two hours with my crazy family. But I think that’s what’s so wonderful. They get submerged in another culture. An immigrant culture, maybe not like their own, but I think they probably will see themselves in some way reflected.

    “Because we’ve all felt like outsiders at some point,” Keshavarz says. “Be it if we’re immigrants, if we’re gay, if we’re an artist, if we have different political views. Be it for whatever reason.

    “So I hope that if you’re Iranian, you feel yourself reflected. If you’re not Iranian, you feel like, ‘Oh, these people aren’t that different from me, and they’re fun.”

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    ‘The Persian Version’ screenings

    What: Director Maryam Keshavarz will do Q&As at two separate screenings of the film.

    When: 7 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 25

    Where: Regal Irvine Spectrum, 500 Spectrum Center, Irvine

    How much: $10 to $15 plus service charges via Eventbrite

    For more: To purchase tickets go to and search for ‘The Persian Version’

    ​ Orange County Register