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Banned in Iran, a filmmaker finds inspiration in her mother for 'The Persian Version'

Niousha Noor plays Shireen, the woman based on Maryam Keshavarz's own mother, in <em>The Persian Version.</em>
Sony Pictures Classics
Niousha Noor plays Shireen, the woman based on Maryam Keshavarz's own mother, in The Persian Version.

Though Iranian American filmmaker Maryam Keshavarz grew up in New York and New Jersey, she frequently returned to Iran. She spent summers, and also attended second grade there.

Keshavarz remembers smuggling Michael Jackson and Cyndi Lauper music into the country by hiding cassette tapes in her underwear — relying on the fact that the Iranian customs guards typically didn't check girls' bodies.

"It was all about how to walk naturally when you have cassettes in your undies," Keshavarz says. "It did help to borrow one of my brother's Underoos. Those higher waisted ones — you can fit more tapes in there."

Keshavarz was banned from returning to Iran in 2011 after the release of her first feature, Circumstance, about the country's youth underground culture and two young women who fall in love. That film won the Audience Award at Sundance — as did her new film, The Persian Version.

Loosely based on Keshavarz's own life, The Persian Version centers on a family of Iranian immigrants in the U.S. Like Keshavarz, the film's main character, Leila, identifies as bisexual — which her parents consider taboo and unacceptable.

"I think the reason I made this film was very much about all the things I face as an American in the U.S.," Keshavarz says. "I never, ever saw anything that represented anything close to my culture to me. I felt very alienated growing up and desperate to see something on the screen that represented our community, our life."

About half of The Persian Version is the story of Leila's mother, who, like Keshavarz's mother, grew up in Iran, entered into an arranged marriage at age 13 and went on to become a successful businesswoman.

Keshavarz says she wasn't sure how her mother would feel about having so much of her life portrayed on screen. At the party following the film's premiere at Sundance, she half expected her mother to slap her in front of everyone. But instead her mother told her she had done the family justice.

"That's the best review I've had," Keshavarz says. "I think [my mother's] strength has been an inspiration. I just never knew until writing this film the origins of that strength."

Interview highlights

On coming to terms with the fact that her mother entered into an arranged marriage as a teenager

I don't think it's right for us in the present time to go back and to try to judge it from our present perspective. I always try to, as a writer, I try to think of it from that specific moment. ... She always said to me, "I didn't want to be a victim. I didn't want people to feel bad for me. I didn't want to feel bad for myself. So I was going to be the strongest version of myself. I had to survive." ... And then she met the young girl from Iran who's 14, who plays her, [and] she was so quiet. And I said, "Mom, what's wrong?" She said, "I never realized how young I was. And how much I had gone through until this moment." And it really moved me.

Maryam Keshavarz was banned from returning to Iran in 2011 after the release of her first feature, <em>Circumstance</em>.
Fred Hayes / Getty Images for SAGindie
Getty Images for SAGindie
Maryam Keshavarz was banned from returning to Iran in 2011 after the release of her first feature, Circumstance.

On realizing she could be a film director

The reason I became a filmmaker was when 9/11 happened, I decided to leave academia and I wanted to go into media because I felt like it was time to shake things up from the inside. ... I just didn't realize until much later in my life that I could be a director. I had never seen any women directors. I knew Penny Marshall, the woman who did Big, was a woman who was a director. It wasn't until I saw a film series when I was a student at Northwestern called Films from Iran at the Art Institute of Chicago, where they brought in four directors, and two of the four directors they brought were women. And I said, "Oh my God, can you be a woman and direct a film?" And ironically, it was Iranian women that I saw first in that position.

On her film Circumstance, which was widely seen in Iran, despite being banned

I meet people all the time who have seen the film underground. Even my editor, one of my editors, when I was interviewing him, he couldn't believe he was meeting me: "Oh, we all watched that when we were in university!"

It was like the biggest underground film, and I knew it was a big deal when my uncle, who was very religious, evidently had sat down his whole family not knowing what it was about, and they all watched it together. ... This is the thing I like about Iranians: They might have different political opinions, but they do like movies. So evidently [my uncle] watched the whole thing.

On the ways that women and girls are pushing for change in Iran

These women know their rights. They are connected to the world. That couldn't happen in another country. That probably couldn't happen to that scale, like in Saudi Arabia or Kuwait or something. But you have a culture that's very educated, very in-tune with their right, with what their rights are, and they have been battling. ... I think that struggle has been ongoing and I'm so grateful that now we have a voice. We can we can use our voices abroad to help amplify their struggle. ...

I have so many friends and family and cousins [in Iran] and people who worked on the film who go without hijab. ... My brother was just there. He said that maybe close to half of the women are not covering their hair and ... [it] continues to be a mass protest. . The thing is that they can't arrest half the population, half of the women. They're slowly clamping down. But I'm just shocked at how much the women are pushing back.

On her understanding of Iranian culture being frozen in time

The Persian I speak, people will laugh sometimes because I sound like an older lady. ... I remember when I met [Iranian film director] Asghar Farhadi. His grandparents are from Shiraz. He was blown away that I spoke still the old type of Shirazi. And I think that's interesting: You come to a country and you so desperately want to preserve your culture, but it's a culture frozen in time. And I think we have to understand that culture evolves with the new cultural mores. And so that's something that I certainly have pushed and my brothers have pushed my immediate family to do. ...

Most of the people [in Iran] are very, very modern and very progressive. And I think it's funny that I grew up in America going to Persian school. I grew up as a Muslim, going to the mosque, growing up very spiritual in terms of religion. All my cousins that live in Iran, they're completely atheists and they laugh at the fact that I know anything about religion.

Heidi Saman and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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