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Sundance Film Festival Review: ‘Joonam’ is an Intimate and Enlightening Look at an Iranian-American Family

A still from Joonam by Sierra Urich, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

It can be difficult for people from different generations to connect, even within the same family. Their experiences are not entirely similar, and the way in which a grandparent or parent creates a particular environment for their descendants shapes the circumstances under which they are raised and see the world. Filmmaker Sierra Urich takes an intimate, deeply personal look at her relationship with her mother, who came to the United States from Iran as a young adult, and her grandmother, who speaks a language she can’t even understand.

Sierra lives in Vermont and is trying her best to learn Farsi. She reflects that she has never been able to converse with her grandmother Behjat, who has lived in America for decades but still prefers to speak Farsi rather than English, typically having her daughter, Sierra’s mother Mitra, translate. Sierra wants to learn more about and document her grandmother’s story, and interviews both Mitra and Behjat about their memories of Iran and the decisions they made upon coming to America to preserve pieces of their culture in an area that feels quite a bit different from home.

This exploration of family dynamics will surely prove relatable to anyone with immigrant parents or grandparents whose native language is not English. Sierra’s status as a first-generation American on one side – and an American-born father on the other – complicates her own identity, and Mitra’s English is fluent, which explains why Sierra didn’t grow up hearing Farsi spoken all the time at home. In many cases, the answers that Sierra seeks are inaccessible, forgotten or impossible to reach, a source of frustration that can only be remedied by extracting whatever information she can from her grandmother’s memories.  

An added complication is the present-day state of Iran that makes it an unsafe place for Sierra to visit. In a conversation with her Thai hairdresser, Mitra clarifies that there’s a difference between her daughter traveling to Thailand and Sierra wanting to go to Iran. A flight search shows it’s actually quite easy to get there with a few plane changes, even from Vermont, but Sierra can’t bring herself to against the wishes of her mother and grandmother to make the trip. She presses wishfully on the street view icon on Google Maps trying to see hints of the place that her family comes from, but nothing comes up, yet another barrier to her history and heritage that she cannot overcome.

Sierra uses music effectively to score several montages of photographs and film clips, the best clues to the past she desperately wants to access. They include photographs of all three featured women in their early years and the spirit of Iran around the time of the Iranian Revolution. She also showcases present-day protests that indicate the worsening situation in the country, and marvels at being called by video by someone who has traveled to Iran and shows her several meaningful sites. Sierra also allows the camera to continue filming as she fights with her mother, a moment that is humorously interrupted by Behjat repeatedly shouting from the other room to make sure she is prepared for the next scene.

This documentary provides a remarkable insight into the lives of the Urich women as they relate to each other. What may be most resonant to audiences of any culture is the older generation’s emphasis on a particular defining memory accompanied by an unwillingness or inability to provide specific details that would make it all more coherent and comprehensible. Sierra conveys as much of her experience growing up with this sense of a far-away culture and history as she can, inviting audiences to see a piece of her life that can’t be separated from who she is.

SCORE: ★★★

Joonam is screening in the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.

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Written by Abe Friedtanzer

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