Maryam Keshavarz (TSOA ’10) Breaks all the Rules with her Sundance-winning Film, The Persian Version
Writer-Director Maryam Keshavarz (TSOA ’10) is the first director to have two films win the Sundance Audience Award in the Dramatic Competition category. Her new film, The Persian Version, is a highly personal—and joyful—tale of duality.
“In telling a story so personal, I wanted a film that was not only about my experience as an Iranian American but also the Iranian experience of my mother and grandmother and the continuum of the female experience,” says Maryam Keshavarz (TSOA ’10) [she/her]. “I wanted to tell a story of the resilience of women.”
As the celebrated filmmaker prepares for the October 20 openings in New York and Los Angeles of the new film that she wrote and directed, The Persian Version, two events have reignited the focus on women’s rights in Iran: Narges Mohammadi’s receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize and the release of the video preceding Armita Geravand’s hospitalization. The film feels especially timely as it is largely autobiographical and centers on its Iranian and Iranian American female characters.
“It didn't start today or yesterday. It didn't start with the movement that started a year ago. It's an ongoing struggle,” Maryam says of the issues facing Iranian women. “And also there's an international aspect of the women's rights movement. We are all connected in trying to defend our rights in different ways.”
Winning both the Audience Award and the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, The Persian Version tells the story of Leila (Layla Mohammadi), who is striving to find balance and embrace her opposing cultures, while challenging the labels society projects upon her. When Leila’s large family gathers in NYC for her father’s heart transplant, a family secret is uncovered that catapults her and her estranged mother, Shireen (Niousha Noor), into an exploration of the past.
For Maryam, it was important that the film feel joyful, while also traversing settings and generations in its explorations of identity and of home. Maryam grew up in New York City with her parents and seven brothers, and traveled to Iran during summer breaks. She earned her BA in Comparative Literature from Northwestern University, an MA in Near Eastern Studies from the University of Michigan, and was pursuing a PhD when 9/11 happened. “That’s when I realized the immediacy and impact of storytelling and narrative,” she says.
Read on to learn more about Maryam’s shift to filmmaking, her straddling of two identities and worlds, and why she says she was a ‘horrible’ NYU student. NYU is one of several NYC-based universities co-hosting a screening of The Persian Version and a talk-back with Maryam (as well as producer and fellow NYU alum Anne Carey) on October 20 at AMC Lincoln Square.
Congratulations on your new film, The Persian Version! Tell us about what this film means to you and the journey of bringing it to fruition.
I wanted to make a film that was about my community, that was multi-layered, and that would be fun to watch and relate to; [I want viewers] to say ‘Oh, that's like the messed up relationship I have with my mom’ or ‘Oh, that's like my crazy family,’ more than anything. To create something fun and funny about my part of the world that people don't normally—I mean normally you don't see any films about Iranians in America at all. And all the films from Iran are a bit depressing. I wanted to create an uplifting film about the immigrant experience here that also honors where I come from and my family's story back home.
What has surprised you most in your career?
It’s surprising that this film could get made by a studio! It's in two languages; it's about all these generations. When I was first coming out of NYU, I was going to the Sundance Labs to develop my first narrative feature, Circumstance, and was meeting with agents. I was in a meeting with an agent and he was like, ‘Oh, you're so international, I don't know what to do with that.’ ‘International’ was like a derogatory term. Now, it's the opposite, right? ‘Oh you're international, you can hit other markets.’ So I think the concept of what cinema is, I think as a way to survive… more global… as people go into streaming and what not. It's a very special moment that we can have films like this. And it's also maybe a cultural moment; I mean, my film's being marketed mainstream. It's going to be in 750 theaters. It's at the AMC. It's a very particular moment that this could be made, and also, I think it's an important one because so much of the film is about reconciling with people that don't have the same point of view.
When you start the film, you kind of judge the mother and you don't like her. And then as the film progresses, she's an onion and you peel back the layers and understand who she is, and then you love her at the end. It's so easy to dismiss people who are different from us. I think this film shows that we don't have to all think exactly alike; we can still find a way to love each other and accept each other. I have had many people say, ‘Oh, I called my mom after this.’
How did your NYU education impact your trajectory as a filmmaker?
I made my first feature doc in my first year at NYU. Christine Choy, the head of the program, was a documentary director. I ended up going to Iran, and the US invaded Iraq while I was there. So I called and I'm like, ‘I want to stay longer,’ and she's like, ‘Stay.’ So, I stayed and shot a film, The Color of Love, that ended up becoming a feature that [was played] around the world.
A lot of the films I made that were successful, I made at NYU. Another short I made, The Day I Died, ended up winning the Gold Teddy Best Short Film and the Jury Prize Special Mention at the Berlinale, while I was a student.
But I have to say, I was a horrible NYU student. I definitely took the classes that inspired me and didn't take the ones that didn't. I was very lucky, I had a Steve Tisch fellowship, which gave me a full scholarship for three years, and that gave me a lot of freedom, even psychologically, to experiment. I wasn't in film school just for the sake of being in film school; I was in film school to make films and to make the films I wanted to make.
I always thought of NYU as part of my journey as an artist; I didn't think of it as school, per se. I had already done a graduate degree. I was pursuing a PhD; I left it behind to come to film school, because of 9/11. So for me, NYU was never an academic experience. NYU was a practical one.
Do you have a favorite NYU memory that you’d like to share?
I teach screenwriting, sometimes, at NYU. And it was cool because Tisch had a fireside chat at Sundance, and I met my students that I had never met because I had only taught them on Zoom. And that was fun! But then I was like, ‘I'm so sorry, this film has all the things you're not supposed to do in a film—It has animals, children, three time periods, voiceover.’ But sometimes you have to break all those rules.
You’ve won the Sundance Audience Award twice and almost all of your films have received overwhelmingly positive critical acclaim. How do you continue to come up with new, original ideas and inspiration?
I have an insane number of ideas. Probably in a different era, I might be in an asylum. But you know, now they call us creatives. I don't know if you ever saw "An Angel at My Table" about the New Zealand writer Janet Frame. It's interesting, like one era’s genius, or one era's creative, is another era's asylum seeker.
But I think, honestly, I've been the opposite. I made this film because I always wanted to see a film like this; I had never seen a film about our immigrant experience. I never saw a film that was fun. I just make stuff that I'd like to see. I watch a lot of films, especially a lot of international films and series. I love cinema so much. I always have, even as a young person. So I just make the films that I've always wanted to see, that I find interesting. I'm my first audience, selfishly.