Maryam Keshavarz feature image photo by Amanda Edwards via Getty Images
It took approximately 30 seconds after the panel ended for Maryam Keshavarz, writer and director of The Persian Version, to demonstrate what our shared culture’s hospitality is all about. “Are you coming to the afterparty?” she asked me through a thicket of admirers. When my response (“what afterparty?”) proved unsatisfying, Keshavarz didn’t hesitate. “You’re coming. They got me a car, we’ll all get in, you’ve gotta come!”
CUT TO: 10 of us squished inside a studio-sponsored Escalade outside Nasrin’s Kitchen in Manhattan. The restaurant, a new enterprise from an Iranian refugee and her son, had cleared out the dining room after closing to accommodate this Persian version of an afterparty. Keshavarz clambered up the stairs to greet the crowd snacking on bite-sized barbari bread and kuku sabzi, exclaiming with glee and taking selfies with every new person she found. It didn’t matter if she was talking to NYU students, local cousins, fellow filmmakers, or the overwhelmed moderator of a panel she’d met three hours ago. Keshavarz was just thrilled to see us all there, buzzing and beaming, for her most personal film to date.
The Persian Version, which premiered at Sundance in January and is out in wide release November 3, tells the multi-generational story of Iranian-American Leila (Layla Mohammadi), her mother Shireen (Niousha Noor), and grandmother (Bella Warda). Based on Keshavarz’s life, the movie picks up with Leila fresh off a divorce from her wife, grappling with her mother’s enduring disapproval, and unraveling her own feelings towards motherhood. Complicating matters is that she (randomly, hilariously, perfectly) gets pregnant from a one-night stand with a man dressed to the nines in Hedwig and the Angry Inch drag, thus confusing her longtime self-identification as a lesbian.
Embracing comedy as well as drama, The Persian Version marks as much a departure for Keshavarz as it does a culmination of her life’s work to date. She got her start with the documentary The Color of Love, in which she interviewed generations of Iranians about romance and sex. Her 2011 feature Circumstance, a lesbian love story set in Tehran, earned her both admirers in Iran’s black market and a lifetime ban from ever returning to the Islamic Republic. With The Persian Version, a movie Keshavarz says she’s essentially been working on “since birth,” she gets to put all her experiences together and retell her and her family’s stories with heart, humor, and bracing honesty. It’s the kind of movie that I, another bisexual Iranian-American, never expected, and was incredibly moved to see.
A few days after Nasrin’s Kitchen, with Keshavarz back home in San Francisco after a whirlwind weekend of screenings, we reconnected over Zoom to get into translating the Iranian-American experience onscreen, watching the Women Life Freedom protests unfold in Iran from afar and, as I rather inartfully put it, “the gay shit.”
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Caroline Framke: Hello! It’s Caroline, how are you doing?
Maryam Keshavarz: Caroline Darya, right?
Caroline Darya Framke: Yes.
Maryam: I’m just going to call you Darya. You look like a Darya.
Caroline Darya: I know. I think if my mom were naming me all over again, “Darya” probably wouldn’t be my middle name, but here we are. So let’s get into it: what’s your version of why this movie is called The Persian Version? What does that phrase mean to you?
Maryam: I think it has two meanings. One, my name is Maryam, and people are always like, “how do you spell that?” “M-A-R-Y-A-M.” Then they go, “oh that’s so unusual!” and I say, “well, that’s the Persian version.” I don’t know why, but all over the world people laugh at this. Maybe because it rhymes? But it’s always been stuck in my head that everybody laughs. Then it’s also because Persians love to tell tall tales, as you know. There’s always “the Persian version” of a story that’s only partially truthful, but whatever’s the best story wins. In Farsi, it’s “laaf meezanan,” which means “to make it bigger.” So this is the Persian version of my family’s story.
Caroline Darya: It also feels like the Persian version of all the rom-com and family drama conventions you use.
Maryam: Yeah, that too. Even the last song in the movie is “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun (The Persian Version).” We took Cyndi Lauper, put in Persian instrumentation, and had Niousha Noor sing it. We even changed some of the lines into Persian so it feels familiar, but Persian-ified.
Caroline Darya: Why did you choose that song?
Maryam: Besides the fact that I used to smuggle Cyndi Lauper and many other artists’ tapes into Iran, I personally always loved her. I remember when the “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” video came out. I’d never seen anything like it. There were people of all different colors and gender expressions, it was so radical at the time. She also didn’t adhere to conventions of feminine beauty. It was just like, “oh my god, this person is living her truth,” whatever that is. It wasn’t even just a typical punk thing; she was feminine, but in her own Cyndi Lauper way. I mean, I was Cyndi Lauper for Halloween in third grade! My hair’s very straight, I couldn’t get it to do all that crazy stuff. But for me, it was very symbolic. So with “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” it felt like a feminist call for arms.
Caroline Darya: It’s funny, I feel like I resisted that song for so long because I was like, (snobby teen voice), “Girls DON’T just wanna have fun, we wanna DO OTHER THINGS.” But maybe now I’ll come back around.
Maryam: (laughs) We wanna do other things, but with fun.
Caroline Darya: Exactly. So you mentioned that song showing you a more nontraditional female expression. That’s something we see a bit of in the movie, with young Leila stomping to the table in her leather jacket going, “I think this is cool, this is what I want to wear.” Was that true to your experience growing up?
Maryam: The thing with my family is that they never knew what would happen when I entered a room, with what I’d look like or what I’d say. I was always finding my own way, always pushing the boundaries to be truthful to what I was exploring at the time. That’s what that scene was about, and the brothers are supportive of her there. My siblings were not the cliché of “the Muslim brothers who are oppressive” at all. They were always very supportive, even with my coming out process. My eldest brother was just like, “well, some people like coffee, some people like tea.”
So I did have that support, but certainly they were constantly confused by my choices. Not because they were homophobic in the traditional sense, but because I myself was exploring what I was. I was very adamant in the beginning of my life that I was gay, and I was married to a woman. Then, obviously, I got pregnant, and that was very confusing even to myself.
So I took my family on my confusion ride. (laughs)
Caroline Darya: How old were you when you came out?
Maryam: I actually had my first relationship when I was in college, but I came out when I met my long-term partner of 12 years. After I graduated and lived in Iran for a year, I came back to Chicago and signed up for the Lesbian Women’s Basketball League. When I got there they were like, “that got canceled, it’s volleyball now.” By the way, I don’t really know how to play volleyball. But I was chatting with a girl and then this woman showed up. It was a warm September afternoon, she was on a Kawasaki Vulcan motorcycle in a leather jacket and shorts, and when she walked in I was like, “oh my god, who is that?” The girl went, “she’s on our volleyball team,” so I said, “oh yeah, I play volleyball.” So that’s how I met her, and early on in our relationship I came out to my family.
Caroline Darya: So you first came out as gay, but —
Maryam: But I was always bisexual. Even in college, I dated a man and a woman at the same time, and they knew about each other. But then I became more political and thought it was important, even though I myself knew I was bisexual, to identify as gay or queer to be really clear in this pursuit of gay rights. I guess in my mind I didn’t want to bring heterosexuality into the space in any way. Now I know that’s biphobia. Life is not that clear; it’s everything in between. But when you’re trying to get your rights, it feels like you have to erase some of the nuances to create something that’s more understandable to the mainstream. Once gay marriage passed and all those things, I think I felt a little differently about it all.
Caroline Darya: I don’t know if you felt similarly but for me, I definitely had some anxiety about coming out as bisexual to my mother because Iranians can be so black and white about everything.
Maryam: Exactly. But it’s not just Iranians, it’s most people. Even in the Q&A audience yesterday there were some jokes about it. It’s funny, because the journey of the film is about me as a confused twenty-something — and now I’m in my forties and I’m still confused in many ways. But I embrace that. There’s this concept of bisexuality that a person is confused and can’t choose. I just think life is confusing. But yeah, I agree with that for sure. It can be easier to say one thing and not “confuse” the issue.
Caroline Darya: Yeah. I can appreciate that you were with a woman you probably thought you’d be with a long time, and that it maybe just didn’t have to come up again.
Maryam: Right, and I was with her for a long time. Our relationship outlived most people’s marriages — but I still feel like a failure! Ha ha.
Caroline Darya: I mean, classic. Something I’ve also been thinking a lot about recently is what a queer Iranian-American experience or community looks like. How has that been for you? What does it look like?
Maryam: I live in San Francisco, which used to have the biggest queer Iranian women’s group in HASHA, and I also used to be part of one in Chicago. Those were so important in the 80’s and 90’s when women came from Iran, to help them settle in and get jobs. They were such a strong, tight community, and it grew. It’s so phenomenal how these 18, 19 year-old girls would help others come from Iran and create their own communities. It was so inspiring. I met them in 1999 when I moved to San Francisco as part of my PhD at Berkeley. I was blown away by that idea that they didn’t have to give up being Iranian just because they were gay. In fact, there was an entire, huge community of queer Iranians.
Now it’s years and years later and they all have kids. The next generation maybe has a different idea of identity, but it was such a dangerous thing in the 80’s and 90’s. It really was. It was so brave of them to create these communities when even in America they still didn’t have rights for gays. It was a sub-subculture. It’s so cool to see that they’re all still friends, and we all know each other even more than 20 years later.
Caroline Darya: Another thing I really appreciated about your movie is that even the circumstance of the pregnancy feels very queer. It’s not just that Leila gets pregnant, but that she gets pregnant with this cis guy who’s dressed as Hedwig, which is why she found him hot.
Maryam: I think thematically it made so much sense. She doesn’t care what the truth is. He’s trying to tell her he’s an actor when she thinks he’s a drag queen and she’s just like, “yeah whatever, you’re ruining my fantasy.” I do play a lot with why she finds him attractive. He looks like a woman with really long legs, the best of both worlds! It’s a playful moment. I’m really playing with all these notions of masculinity, femininity, what it means to be a father.
Caroline Darya: It’s another element of The Persian Version that feels like it could fuel its own whole movie. Your first draft was what, 180 pages?
Maryam: The original, yeah. The brothers and the father were much more prevalent in that script, but everything became sublimated to the women’s story. It all got stripped away. So much of writing is what we omit. Half our job is figuring out the things we don’t include on the page.
Caroline Darya: I know you can no longer go back to Iran after Circumstance. What has it been like to watch all the Women Life Freedom protests happening from here?
Maryam: It’s hard because I feel so connected to the movement, and seeing all these girls get hurt… they’re my daughter’s age. That part of it is difficult. But I think it’s exciting, because when I was in Iran I was part of the protests, and now it’s so massive and not stoppable. The difference now is that we can be their voice abroad. That there’s an idea internationally of supporting these women is very exciting. Having (imprisoned Iranian activist) Narges Mohammadi win the Nobel Peace Prize, that kind of recognition also amplifies so much of our movement.
Caroline Darya: Your movie does a really good job showing why Persian women have always been at the forefront of change in Iran. That’s something that maybe surprised some about the protest movement that’s been going on for a year now, but for us, it was like —
Maryam: “Have you ever met an Iranian woman?!”
Caroline Darya: [laughs] I mean, maybe not! So what would you say to those people who were surprised about Iranian women taking control in this way?
Maryam: Something like this doesn’t come overnight. Iranian women are highly educated; women are more than 50 percent of people at universities, more than 50 percent of doctors there are women. It’s also those women who come here to America and have to fight very difficult circumstances economically and socially. They’re resilient. They create joy for their families. They’re very, very strong individuals, and I don’t think anyone should be surprised. No matter if it’s this regime or the previous regime, Iranian women have always been fighting in very difficult circumstances to achieve those things.
So I think Iranian women are a symbol of resilience. They live in a very patriarchal world and yet they’ve attained so much. That’s because they live with the concept of “mobarezeh,” or fighting against the status quo. It’s very much ingrained in the psyche of Iranian women. They are not passive people. They run the household, they’re very aggressive and intelligent women. That is the history of Iranian women.
The Persian Version is now in theatres.