An Iranian-American Woman’s Quest to Reconnect With Her Heritage

Hundreds of people sat shoulder-to-shoulder fanning loose papers and clutching water bottles dripping with condensation in the 93-degree heat to watch Joonam (2023), a documentary following three generations of Iranian women and their relationships with Iran and America. The screening last week, hosted by Rooftop Films in Brooklyn, was a celebration of Iranian art, culture, and community that drew crowds of Iranian American locals. 

Before the screening, Mehrnam Rastegari performed a traditional Iranian violin set. In the back of Brooklyn Commons Park, a seemingly endless line formed in front of Bibi Bakery’s pop-up selling saffron ice cream sandwiches and faloodeh, a frozen Persian dessert with thin noodles, rose water, and lime juice. 

Following 30 minutes of casual chatter among seatmates and introductions of mutual friends, Joonam, named for a Persian word of endearment, opened with a scene of filmmaker Sierra Urich learning Persian. Born and raised in Vermont to an Iranian mother and an American father, Urich, like many in the diaspora, didn’t grow up speaking Persian or visiting Iran, yet she yearned for connection to the country. She started Persian lessons as an adult to better communicate with her grandmother, and in the process, came to know parts of her identity as an Iranian-American woman. Language plays a similarly powerful and contentious role throughout the film as Urich’s mother, Mitra, is the translator and bridge between Urich and her grandmother, Behjat. 

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Opening scene of Joonam, with filmmaker Sierra Urich learning Persian in her kitchen in Vermont 

Throughout the screening of the film, which tells the story of Urich’s quest to connect with her grandmother, mother, and Iran, audience members could be heard repeatedly blurting out observations to their neighbors. “She is my mom!” one said. “That’s exactly like my grandmother,” another whispered. Audible laughs, sighs, and Persian-language commentary continually ebbed and flowed. Viewers’ connections to Iran were geographically, linguistically, and generationally diverse, many uniting over family histories of exile following the 1979 Iranian Revolution. On screen, the women naturally blended humor into traumatic memories of life in Iran, infusing notes of levity into their experiences of family separation, persecution, and immigration. 

The film, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, captures each woman’s story of girlhood. Over several scenes, Behjat explains how, contrary to common conceptions, her early teen marriage liberated her. “I was just happy to be free!” she says, clapping and singing over a bonfire. “To do whatever my heart wanted … With my husband, I was free.” Mitra’s independence came when she arrived in the United States for college, far from her family back in Iran. And for Urich, the documentary was her moment of reckoning.

“It was like discovering myself through making the film,” she told Hyperallergic in an interview after the screening. 

Joonam strays away from overtly political ideology and the family’s Baha’i faith, instead focusing on depictions of Iranian culture, memory, and fractured identity. The film’s raw presentation of parent-child relationships resonates with people beyond the diaspora, displaying the universal “experience of vying for your own independence apart from your family,” in Urich’s words

Over the course of 100 minutes, the three women bicker, laugh, sing, cry, and embrace each other while learning and re-learning each other’s pasts. Picturesque, bucolic scenes of the Vermont countryside serve as the women’s backdrop, a nod to Urich’s Americanness and Behjat’s “loss of connection to the land,” a perspective Urich said she only fully realized once she edited the film. 

Mehrnam Rastegari playing the violin before the Joonam screening at Rooftop Films (photo Mandy Taheri/Hyperallergic)

Art is a two-way street that allows us to connect,” Urich said during a Q&A session moderated by actor Arian Moayed. The panel was cut short due to lightning and rain, but nonetheless, audience members lined up to embrace Urich and her mother and discuss how they personally related to the film. Many Azeri speakers relayed how Behjat, who was from the northwestern Iranian city of Ardabil, sounded just like their maternal relatives. One viewer told Urich that Behjat’s word choices in Azeri were “so specific, eloquent, and poetic,” something Urich was unaware of since she doesn’t speak the language. 

The film, primarily shot on a tripod, weaves archival family footage in Iran and America with videos of the Iranian Revolution and the ongoing movement for women’s freedom in Iran. Last September, demonstrations erupted across Iran following the death of Mahsa (Zhina) Amini in police custody. Since then, the Islamic Republic has responded with extreme violence towards protestors, resulting in thousands of arrests, hundreds of deaths, and several executions. Despite the state’s violence, some Iranians continue to engage in subtle and overt protests. In contrast to her mother’s portrayal in the film, Urich believes this young generation is “sick of being afraid” and is reclaiming “their Iran.”

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Actor Arian Moayed and his daughter; Sierra Urich; and Mitra Samimi-Urich at Bijan’s (photo by and courtesy Dennis Manuel)

Around 11:15pm, Moayed led more than three dozen people to a nearby Iranian-owned restaurant, Bijan’s, to continue the celebration. Viewers crammed into the warm bar and ordered Back Home Beer, a Persian lager that was hand-delivered for the afterparty. There, new acquaintances naturally shared experiences and stories about Iran, Iranian identity, and living in the diaspora. 

“I felt that this movie was made for me to enjoy,” Sarmad Mehrdad, an Iranian PhD student and local at Bijan’s, told Hyperallergic. “Everything about Mitra and Behjat impersonates the ones that I have left behind back in Iran.”

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