New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

Q&A: Tisch alum Maryam Keshavarz on the premiere of ‘The Persian Version’

Keshavarz discusses the importance of representation and her journey as an Iranian American filmmaker.
Tisch alum Maryam Keshavarz on her new film, ‘The Persian Version,’ and representation in cinema. (Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

On Oct. 20, AMC Lincoln Square 13 was filled with students from NYU, Columbia and other universities across the city, all gathered for the premiere of “The Persian Version.” The university mixer event, hosted by the NYU Persian Cultural Society, brought college students in New York City’s Persian community together for the screening and Q&A.

The film follows Leila, an aspiring Iranian-American filmmaker, in her struggle to balance and embrace her two opposing cultures. As Leila writes her narrative, she discovers family secrets and navigates a turbulent relationship with her mother. “The Persian Version” is a story of family, grappling with identity and breaking generational trauma. Winning the U.S. Dramatic Competition Audience Award and the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, “The Persian Version” is a universal and relevant story of the immigrant experience.   

The largely autobiographical film was written and directed by Tisch Master of Fine Arts alum Maryam Keshavarz. WSN sat down with Keshavarz to talk about creating “The Persian Version,” changing the narrative of Middle Eastern representation in film and her advice for the next generation of Iranian-Americans. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

WSN: A lot of young people in immigrant families are pushed to pursue careers that are considered safer like medicine, law or engineering. What inspired you to become a filmmaker despite the societal pressure as an immigrant in the United States?

Keshavarz: I was at University of California, Berkeley for my Ph.D. when Sept. 11 happened. After that tragic day, big letters reading “those bastards” were on the cover of every paper — referring to Middle Eastern people. We were all mourning what happened on Sept. 11, but for my family, there was now a lot of suspicion around us. Our extremely Middle Eastern names did not help. It was very jarring in post-Sept. 11 America that we were really not being considered as Americans. 

All of the rhetoric around the Middle East was very disturbing to me, so I decided to leave academia. I thought it was important to go into the media. I briefly considered journalism, but I really thought the way to change people was through cinema and television. I went into film specifically with the idea of changing the image of my community. My Middle Eastern friends and I made a short film when I was living in San Francisco. It was a black-and-white experimental short film in response to Sept. 11. I used that short to apply to film school and was awarded a full scholarship to NYU for my masters at Tisch. That began my journey. 

WSN: One memorable line in the movie was when Leila said, “I dreamed of being the Iranian Martin Scorsese.” Who are your biggest directorial influences, and are there any films that inspire you? How does this translate into “The Persian Version?”

Keshavarz: I watch movies nonstop, so I’d say I have a lot of influences. Growing up, Martin Scorsese was for sure a huge influence for me. He’s a fellow New Yorker, and a lot of his stories draw from his cultural past. I just knew that was the kind of work I wanted to do. In his work, he did lots of great world building based on New York folks, which really inspired me. 

When I was at school, I watched absolutely everything and went to every film festival I could. This city is the best place to watch films from around the world. International cinema is really influential for me, and I definitely see those influences in “The Persian Version,” especially that of identity and the immigrant struggle.

One film that really stuck with me was “The Joy Luck Club. I remember seeing it at the university cinema, and I cried so much that I fell out of my seat. The film is about four Chinese-American childhood best friends that gather when one of their mothers dies. Each segment of the film flashes back to each of the four mothers in China and how their trauma affected their relationship with their daughter. The film is a beautiful mother-daughter story, and it was really moving to see something that I can relate to. It has the intimacy of the immigrant story but the epicness of what these women went through.

WSN: Can you share a memory from your time in the MFA program at Tisch? How has your experience as a film student shaped the beginning of your career?

Keshavarz: During spring break of my first year of film school, I went to Iran to make a short documentary for a class project. I was originally planning to make the film with a classmate, but he couldn’t get a visa, so I had to shoot and do the sound by myself. Back then, Iran was a lot more open than it is today. I went to the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance with my NYU ID and a letter from my professor saying I was making a documentary about my family. I was shocked when they gave me a real permit — it’s crazy how things have changed since then. Everything shifted when the United States invaded Iraq. 

I was arrested while I was videoing the people celebrating Nowruz and Sizdah Bedar in the streets. I showed the officer my film permit, and he ripped it up and threw it in my face. I then had to smuggle all the film tapes back to the United States — just by chance they didn’t check my backpack. When I got back to New York, I spent my whole second year editing the footage from Iran into a feature-length documentary, “Rangeh Eshgh,” or “The Color of Love”. 

I felt like this film really shifted the negative Western perception of Iran and the Middle East. It opened at the MoMA’s Documentary Fortnight in New York and was sold around the world. I came into film school with a clear idea of the kind of the work I wanted to do, and I used NYU to further my aspirations within that, both artistically and politically.

WSN: Besides filming during COVID-19, what was the biggest challenge in the production process? 

Keshavarz: There are many scenes that were emotionally challenging. But in terms of technical challenges, the film has so many time periods — the ’80s, the ’90s, the ’60s and the present day. It was difficult to make sure all the costumes and set design were correct. We wanted to emphasize the grandeur of some of the scenes, particularly those in Iran. We did a lot of drone shots and wide landscape visuals. 

The idea is that we’re much more closed off in the immigrant world, so even when doing exterior shots, they’re much tighter. When the film takes us back home in Iran, there is more of a once-upon-a-time fairytale quality to the cinematography. Our goal was to balance the grandeur with a very intimate story and not get so caught up in it that you forget what’s at the heart of the film, which is a mother-daughter story. So it was definitely challenging to balance all of that. 

WSN: Whether it’s Leila, her mother or her huge Iranian family, there are a lot of stories to tell in this film. Was it difficult to combine all of the plot lines?

Keshavarz: My first script was 180 pages, and one producer said, “This is the best TV series I have ever read.” We had different producers for development, and they were really trying to understand what the story was about — was it about a big Iranian-American family? Or the mother and daughter’s relationship? Or both? The main narrator is Leila because she’s a filmmaker trying to understand her mother. The other narrator is the mother because she was coming to the United States to write her own story. The only characters given the ability to narrate and stop time and break the fourth wall are the mother and daughter. 

After the mother’s narration ends, there is no more narrator and the film becomes the convergence of their stories. It took a lot of time to plan because it is a very complicated structure. When your grandparents tell you a story, ten other stories pop up because they want to give context to the world. This way of Iranian storytelling carries throughout the film. With this structure, I wanted to look at how trauma affects generations of women. It began with the daughter telling her version of her trauma, and then the mother picking up the narration and defending her life choices. 

I challenge the audience to be empathetic to just her as Leila learned to. I wanted to embed that journey of empathy in the structure of the film. Although it was challenging to have many stories in the plot, they all come together to show that it is possible to break generational trauma.

WSN: The film has an empowering message to immigrants and those in immigrant families. How do you think your work as a filmmaker serves to inspire first generation artists, in particular, young Iranian-American artists? 

Keshavarz: My team kept asking me why I was spending so much time planning this university mixer. It was so important for me to bring Persian students from all over New York together not only to meet each other, but to see the film. When I was a student, that’s what I always wanted to see, but it just didn’t exist. When I was younger, I had such a sense of longing to see myself on the screen and find little crumbs of representation. 

One of the main reasons I made this film was because we have been so vilified in Western media, particularly American media. It’s not truthful to our stories, our families, our culture — it’s very dehumanizing. This film portrays us in a way that’s not trying to vilify us. It shows our humanity, our humor more than anything. Just that acknowledgement can be so healing psychologically for people because I don’t think we realize the trauma that always being depicted in a negative light has on us. It is so important for me that this film inspires young Iranian-Americans to do anything they want to pursue. Being first and second generation, you have so much ahead of you to change the narrative.

“The Persian Version” is now at select theaters in New York City and LA and will be showing nationwide starting Nov. 2.

Contact Roksaneh Salartash at [email protected].

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