Maryam Keshavarz, Noora Niasari and Sierra Urich have films at Sundance this year, two narrative features and a doc, wrenching and joyful family stories of the Iranian diaspora threaded with longing, regret and rebellion. None deal with ongoing civil unrest there, but it colors the filmmakers’ work and life.
“The woman-led revolution in Iran broke out while we were directing the film and it really propelled us to finish it. [It] gave us a unique energy so that we could amplify the stories of Iranian women,” said Niasari. Her film Shayda follows an Iranian woman living in Australia who flees to a shelter with her frightened six-year-old daughter to escape her husband, Hossein, whom she wants to divorce. Shayda (played by Zar Amir Ebrahimi, 2022 Cannes Best Actress winner for Holy Spider) is Niasari’s mother. “My mother’s story, my story, are [like] millions of our stories, and I just hope our films can be a drop in an ocean of change.”
The three were part of a Pat Mitchell-moderated panel for a Sundance Women’s Day Celebration (the day before national Women’s March, ‘Bigger Than Roe’). Sundance CEO Joana Vicente said this edition was record for women with 56% of films showing having at least one female director.
Keshavarz, here with pop-music filled family drama The Persian Version, said she hasn’t been able to return to Iran since her first film, Circumstance, about two teenage Iranian girls who fall in love. It won the 2011 Sundance Film Festival Audience Award.
“I can’t go back. I can go, but I can’t leave. Hotel California. But I do dream about going back. It was very hard for me. My grandmother passed away recently and I couldn’t go back.”
Niasari said she faces a similar situation. “But sometimes we have to make those choices as artists. It’s a very difficult position to be in when you have family there. I guess that’s the cost of telling the truth, and telling our truth.”
The first-time director said she begam grappling with the risk just as Shayda was about to be financed. “Can I go back to Iran? And my mother would not be able to go back either, and I asked her, ‘What do you want me to do?’ Because I was putting her in this position too. And she was like, ‘I want you to make the film because I came to this country to give you freedom and I don’t want you to have to censor yourself as an artist.”
Ulrich, here with documentary Joonam, grew up in rural Vermont where her parents fled just before the Iranian revolution. Her film turns to her mother and grandmother, Mitra and Behjat, for a portrait of three generations of women and their complex relationship to Iran.
Unlike Keshavarz and Niasari, she’s never been to Iran but has longed to go. “It’s a Catch-22. The more you try to be connected, or you’re an artist and you’re speaking freely, the more you are put in a situation where it’s not wise to go,” she said. “But what other choice do we have? It’s our duty to speak freely about our experiences even if that means being cut off from a place that we feel so connected to.”
In a high profile case, Iran’s Supreme Court is set to rule shortly on whether to release jailed filmmaker Jafar Pahani (The Bears). He was arrested last July and set to serve a six- year sentence handed down in 2010 when he was convicted of “propaganda against the system.” In October, the court overturned the conviction and called for a retrial.
Ulrich said the current protests and ensuing crackdown with waves of imprisonments and executions by the regime have solidified bonds among Iranians around the world.
Civil unrest started in September in response to the death in custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after she was arrested for wearing a headdress improperly.
“We think of revolution as what we see on the street, but women have been pushing the boundaries and putting themselves at risk on every level,” said Keshavarz. “It’s been an ongoing struggle for decades.”