‘The Persian Version’ Shows How Healing Intergenerational Trauma Can Be Also Be Funny

“The Persian Version” won the audience award at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.
December 7, 2023
“The Persian Version” writer-director Maryam Keshavarz (right) and merchandiser Naz Harounian wearing the film’s promotional couture (Credit: Cliff Lipson Photography)

Imagine asking a family member, “What is the thing you’re most ashamed about?” It’s a question that gets asked and answered in “The Persian Version,” a new film written and directed by Maryam Keshavarz. 

“The Persian Version” is a story about three generations of women and the trauma that’s passed along from one to the next. Breaking that cycle is at the center of the story of Persian American Muslim Leila (Layla Mohammadi) and her strong-willed immigrant mother, Shirin (Niousha Noor). Leila is a filmmaker who becomes pregnant after a one-night stand, and her mother is none too thrilled. Throughout the film, there are portrayals of the sources of the main characters’ greatest insecurities and shortcomings, with flashbacks to Shirin’s life in the 1970s in Iran and Leila’s adolescence in the 1980s in America. 

“The Persian Version” won the audience award at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. In 2011, Keshavarz also won the audience award at Sundance for her film “Circumstance.” The sex and drugs in “Circumstance” were enough to get both Keshavarz and the film banned from Iran. 

Don’t be discouraged by R-rating for “The Persian Version.” It’s probably just because of one use of the F-word. The film has many enjoyable layers to it that will appeal to anyone, young and old, contemplating their place in their family’s history. Indeed, Keshavarz has noticed at screenings that there are grandparents and teenagers enjoying the film together. 

Keshavarz says “The Persian Version” was largely inspired by her own childhood, where she was the girl in the family and had to share one bathroom with her eight brothers.

“It’s a story of a big Iranian American family and the difficult relationship between mother and daughter that gets challenged when a family secret is revealed,” Keshavarz told the Journal. “The daughter gets to know the truth of who her mother is.”

It sounds heavy, but the film is certainly a comedy. Audiences are hit with silly moments in the opening scenes just before the serious stakes get raised. Weaving laughs and trauma healing into one film is daunting, but Keshavarz was able to take on the task. As kids, she and her eight brothers loved laughing their way through the film “Airplane!” and empathizing with the Chinese-immigrant parent-child themes in the film “The Joy Luck Club.”

At a time when tensions between the Jewish and Muslim communities are so high, the bond between the film’s writer-director and merchandise designer adds another heartwarming layer. 

A notable behind-the-scenes facet of the film is a story of Persian American and Muslim-Jewish friendship and sisterhood. Keshavarz is a Muslim from the New York Metropolitan area. She hired her friend Naz Harounian, a Jewish Persian American fashion entrepreneur and screenwriter based in Los Angeles, to create the film’s promotional merchandise with her company Sprezzatura Culture. At a time when tensions between the Jewish and Muslim communities are so high, the bond between the film’s writer-director and merchandise designer adds another heartwarming layer to “The Persian Version.” It’s a fitting bonus feature, as the film has resonated with both Jews and Muslims in the Persian American community.

“We had a really big screening within the Jewish Iranian community at the beginning of what’s happening [in Israel] and they were contemplating canceling it,” Keshavarz said. “We decided not to cancel and we were so glad we didn’t. This is what we need right now.” 

Keshavarz splits her time between Los Angeles, London and Lisbon — ”anything with an ‘L’” she quipped. Still, she and Harounian are as close as sisters. They met 6 years ago; around that time, Harounian’s mother had just passed away and Keshavarz still grieving the loss of her father from years prior. 

After watching a cut of the film this past summer, Harounian was particularly touched by the scenes that mirrored the experiences of women in her Persian American Jewish family.

“I came to America from Iran when I was five, and since then, there has been this blending of my Persian culture and American culture, feeling like I don’t fully fit into either,” Harounian told the Journal. “The opening of her film was reminiscent of my existence. There’s so many women in Iran that suffer. Maryam’s history is not different from my history. It’s probably the same history that most Persian women have. I’m so grateful that she’s telling this story. Persian women are some of the strongest women that I know. I think it’s because our parents and our grandparents, as women, had to endure so much. Finally someone, Maryam, was brave enough to tell this kind of story. Persians keep it really private. They’re like, oh, this is not a good story to tell because it puts their family in a bad light. But at this point, being transparent is powerful, it’s the point of connection we need in the world. I’m so proud of her for doing it in such an honest way.” 

As the designer behind the merchandise, Harounian infused her creative vision into each piece, tapping into the neon colors and thick geometric marker-like designs from the early to mid-1990s. She wanted the merchandise to be more than just logo-branded items; she aimed to create pieces that would capture the eyes of those who were not familiar with the film or Keshavarz’s work or even the Persian-American community. There’s a nostalgic aesthetics to the promotional shirts and hoodies that will capture the attention of adults who came of age in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The couture promoting the film is for sale at Harounian’s family’s brick and mortar artware store and gallery, Ned’s Melrose. After standing for over 30 years, the store was looted and destroyed during the 2020 riots, but re-opened at 7620 Melrose Avenue in 2022.

The collaboration between Harounian and Keshavarz showcases the power of creativity to foster love and peace even during the most perilous times. Both of them attributed having friends of different races and religions around them being at the core of their own personality and creative pursuits. Harounian emphasized the importance of embracing diversity in one’s circle of friends and how it had enriched her life. It is a topic that has very much loomed over Harounian since the Oct. 7th attacks in Israel. 

“I’ve had friends of different ethnicities and religions ever since I moved to America,” Harounian said, “I wouldn’t exist as who I am and live such a full life without all of these different people. I remind my friends often how grateful I am for them. This doesn’t exist unless we move beyond coexisting. I dream that humanity can understand each other, that our differences will not be put aside, but that they will vanish, that we can live beyond peace, that we will live in love with one another. Because of my idealism I’m having a hard time accepting reality, also because of my idealism I’m able to hope through the pain.” 

When Keshavarz was pitching “The Persian Version,” Harounian would remind her dear friend not to get discouraged by saying, ‘Do you know who you are? You are the most successful female Persian filmmaker of all time. Don’t forget who you are walking into that meeting!’” 

The feeling is mutual. 

“I consider Naz a sister,” Keshavarz told the Journal.

As the film and the merchandise continue to garner attention, Harounian remains committed to promoting inclusivity and understanding through her creative work. She hopes that “the merchandise and the film will serve as a reminder that, beneath our diverse backgrounds and experiences, we share more similarities than differences.”

The Journal asked Maryam Keshavarz for some reflections on writing and directing “The Persian Version.” The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

JEWISH JOURNAL: What’s something that you notice as a parent on the topic of generation gap?

MARYAM KESHAVARZ: When my daughter, who is almost 13, said to me, ‘I want to go to therapy.’ We never even had that language when we were kids!

JJ: What do you tell people when they ask what this film is about?

MK: It’s really about finding your place in a big family. It’s also about realizing that in a big family that you can be different and still find a way to love each other and find joy. And I think that was a really important aspect of the story for me, because in a world that we’re also fractured, we lack, unfortunately, there’s such a lack of empathy in this country internationally, that we feel like people put up flags and I’m this and I’m that, but there’s not a sense of empathy between people. And I feel like a family is a microcosm of that issue. And I look for my own family to challenge myself. The person I have the most issues with is my mother. So I really challenge myself to practice empathy in trying to understand this unknowable woman delve beyond the surface.

JJ: What has been the reaction to the film from your many family members?

MK: They’ve all seen it. Most of them came to Sundance. The ones that didn’t come to Sundance were watching it remotely. My brothers after the screening were so thrilled. I’m very smart—I cast people that are much better-looking than my real brothers. And so they were like, oh, of course I looked like that one had hair. They were really happy. And my mom felt like I did her justice, which is really, it’s a challenge when you’re dealing with such sensitive issues and you want to make it a comedy. And also not just my mother’s story, but it’s all of our origin stories. The story of my father’s, the story of my aunts, my grandmother, the way in old cultures that you tell a story, there’s often stories within stories to truly understand your grandmother would start a story and would go on a tangent to a different story to give you context. And so it’s really the story through the line, maternal lineage, but of an entire family.

“The Persian Version” is available for streaming on Amazon, AppleTV, GooglePlay, FanFlix, Vudu and XBOX.

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