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A still from Shayda by Noora Niasari. Courtesy of Sundance Institute _ Photo by Jane Zhang
A still from Noora Niasari's "Shayda," an official selection of the World Dramatic Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Image courtesy of Sundance Institute. Photo by Jane Zhang

Inspired by their mothers' stories, how 3 Iranian film directors at Sundance told powerful tales of resilience

In a women's shelter in suburban Australia, Iranian resident Shayda takes a pair of blunt scissors to her long hair. Her young daughter watches in delight.

It's a powerful moment in the feature film "Shayda" that represents the titular character's increasing independence from her abusive husband, Hossein.

Although "Shayda" was written four years ago and set in the Australian coastal city of Brisbane three decades ago, the scene mirrors one of the enduring symbols of the ongoing protests against repression of women's rights by Iranian theocratic authorities. Along with marches, university protests, and the burning of headscarves, Iranian women across the world have broadcast images across social media of cutting their hair.

The act shows solidarity with the Kurdish-Iranian woman, Mahsa Amini, 22, whose killing last September at the hands of Iran's so-called "morality police" sparked the protests. Cutting one's hair is also a traditional Kurdish symbol of mourning, said Noora Niasari, the film's Tehran-born director.

"It was chilling to realize how much it resonates with what is happening today," she said.

Niasari's film recently won the Audience Award in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the Sundance Film Festival, which featured the works of three women filmmakers of Iranian descent this year. Although the films vary by tone and genre, they all focus on women and are united by the geopolitical backdrop of the current protests and the Iranian government's brutal crackdown against demonstrators.

The travails of the protagonist in "Shayda" are based on the experiences of Niasari's family. She, too, was raised by a single mother after living in a shelter in Australia at the age of five. In Iran, a husband's permission is required to seek divorce; so Niasari's mother became a permanent exile for fear of losing custody of her children if she returned to Iran.

Years later, the circumstances remain – "it's still the same fight for these women," Niasari said of Iran's protesters.

The Iranian government has long targeted members of the country's film industry for their art and political views, including renowned director Jafar Panâhi, who has been held since July 2022 on charges of "propaganda against the system."

Filmmaker Maryam Keshavarz, who also premiered a film at Sundance, grew up in New Jersey and visited Iran as a child during breaks in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. But she's been banned from the country since the 2011 release of her debut feature film "Circumstance," about youth underground culture and two young Iranian women in love. Keshavarz said that the current uprising has brought decades of struggle by Iranian women to a head."This new generation is amazing. I'm terrified for them, and I'm in awe of them," she said.

Keshavarz said her comedy, "The Persian Version" is a "maybe more than semi-autobiographical," multigenerational retelling of her family's journey to the United States. Leila, the film's lead and Keshavarz's stand-in, works to find her place between American and Iranian culture, even as both countries are at odds with each other. In the second half of the film, the narrative flips to her mother, Shirin, who is revealed to be a character far more complex than the conservative, disapproving matriarch seen in her daughter's eyes.

Layla Moammadi and Niousha Noor in The Persian Version. Courtesy of Sundance Institute _ Photo by Andre Jager
Actors Layla Mohammadi (left) and Niousha Noor in "The Persian Version." Image courtesy of Sundance Institute. Photo by Andre Jager

Keshavarz said narrating her family's story from both Leila and Shirin's perspectives helped her recognize her own mother's strength and vulnerability. While the daughter in the film is a literal writer, her mother is also "a writer of her own destiny as an immigrant," the director and screenwriter said.

"The film was an ode to my mother and her story and her voice and her desire to speak," Keshavarz said.

Keshavarz wrote "The Persian Version" while the Trump era's so-called "Muslim travel bans," were in effect, saying the script was a "refuge." "The xenophobic rhetoric is so against what it means to be American," she said.

Writing the film enabled her to reflect her own experience in the Iranian diaspora, as well as her mother's life in Iran.

"I'd never seen something that bridges those two worlds … that has both Iran and both America," Keshavarz said. "So I kind of just wrote the thing I've always wanted to see."

By following her instinct, "The Persian Version" ended up resonating with audiences and critics alike at Sundance. The film won both the audience award and the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award in the U.S. dramatic competition.

Unlike Niasari and Keshavarz, Iranian-American filmmaker Sierra Urich has never been to Iran. Her debut documentary, "Joonam," which was also shown at Sundance, follows Urich as she dives into the culture on the maternal side of her family by spending a summer in her childhood home in rural Vermont with her mother Mitra and grandmother Behjat.

Urich said she made the film for people like her, who aren't first-generation immigrants and "were longing to have more of a connection to their ancestral lands or to their families identity, but didn't necessarily feel it themselves."

One way Urich builds ties to her Iranian heritage is by learning Farsi online. Another is through conversations with Mitra and Behjat, in which viewers learn about the murder of Behjat's grandfather. In the film, Mitra contends with the post-traumatic stress caused by this traumatic moment in the family's history, among other violence the family has endured.

Much like "The Persian Version," Urich's documentary amplifies the voice and agency of both the filmmaker and her mother. Urich uses footage that her mother, an artist, filmed in college in the U.S. about being separated from Iran because of the Iranian Revolution in 1979.

"I think this film at its heart is really about loss of home and how that experience is different for each generation," Urich said.

While the mothers of Urich, Niasari, and Keshavarz all left Iran in different eras for different reasons, Niasari said the filmmakers are connected through the shared experience of displacement.

"There isn't a family that hasn't experienced trauma who's living outside of Iran," she said.

Nevertheless, the directors all tell stories of Iranian women who show resilience and resolve while celebrating their cultural identity.

Keshavarz, who has elevated Iranian women's stories through film for decades, said she's optimistic about the spotlight now being shone on the treatment and experiences of women in her homeland.

"I never thought there would be a day I would see so many people around the world marching for something that we've known existed for decades," she said of the protests. "That's what storytelling does. It brings a face to big issues, and it lets us connect."

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