Warning: The following article contains major plot spoilers.
“Planned chaos” is how filmmaker Maryam Keshavarz described The Persian Version (2023) to me, her second feature after the lesbian romance Circumstance (2011) to win the Audience Award at Sundance Film Festival. It’s not hard to see why when the semi-autobiographical film’s now infamous opening scene shows Leila, a young, bisexual Iranian-American filmmaker and stand-in for Keshavarz, flaunting a controversial ensemble of half burka top and half bikini bottom – a “burka-tini” – to a Halloween rager where she hooks-up with a theater actor who, as we find out, gets her pregnant.
This part of the story is all real, as Keshavarz told me. “Most of the story is real, it’s just not in the right order. And my mom doesn’t stop time in real life.” Following this opening scene, the viewer is launched into a time-bending dramedy broken-up into two parts. The first part captures the vicissitudes of Leila (Layla Mohammadi), the only daughter in an immigrant family with eight brothers, as she fights against her mother’s social conservatism to negotiate her cultural and sexual queerness. The second part takes us through the childhood and immigration story of her mother, Shireen (Niousha Noor), who carries with her the painful secret behind their emigration from Iran.
I interviewed the filmmaker in January 2024, after several months of critical acclaim (and some mixed reviews – more on those later). As I waited to speak to Keshavarz at a small pop-up party in Los Angeles to celebrate the digital release of her latest film, I had a short exchange with a middle-aged Iranian-American man standing next to me.
“What brings you here?” he asked me. I explained that I had come because of Maryam. “Me too,” he replied. “You see,” he told me, “her story is also mine.” He went on to tell me how he and Maryam belong to the same generation of Iranians whose parents fled to America and how her film’s portrayal of growing-up queer between two clashing cultures, the struggles with family, friends, romance, identity, and most of all self-love, was the first time he saw himself represented on screen.
His perspective helps contextualize much of the critique leveled at the film, which has fixated on it being “messy,” “doing too much,” and suffering “from geographic, temporal and tonal displacement.” This is precisely the point: these stories, which are by no means uncommon, are inherently messy, too much, and displaced – geographically, temporally, and tonally.
Told any other way, the film may not have been as resonant. The ingenuity of Keshavarz’s film lies in its refusal to gloss over difficult details or idealize itself, narratively, or structurally, in order to appease a general audience unacquainted with marginalization or unprepared for empathy.
As I quickly learned, Keshavarz’s film has struck a powerful chord with second-generation immigrants, among many others. “People have opened up about their own stories,” she told me during our interview. “My mom’s friends, and so many people in general have been telling me about their family stories. Our traumas run deep, and not just as Persians but as immigrants, I think, there is a link to trauma in coming to America and leaving the past behind, creating a new identity, and you leave so much behind to come and immigrate. It’s such a big risk. It really is a reimagining of the self.”
The film features constant cuts between Iran and the United States (from the perspective of both Leila and her mother, Shireen), time freezes, voice-overs, flashbacks, fourth wall breaks, tonal shifts between slapstick comedy, drama, and tragedy, and even musical dance interludes. As Hamlet says, “Time is out of joint.”
At the end of the film the Imam-e Zaman, a messianic figure from Shi’i Muslim theology often invoked in apostrophe by Iranians during times of need, suddenly appears in a comedic sci-fi twist to rush Shireen to the hospital after Leila decides to keep the baby she had conceived out of wedlock.
This chaotic melange of formal and narrative twists is held together by a single theme – trauma. What makes trauma “traumatic” is its inability to be fully assimilated into an idealized narrative of the self. How, then, do you narrate trauma? Reconstructing the life and upbringing of your parents as an adult from what you’ve witnessed as their child is one way to do it, and it’s a key part of the psychological exercise that makes The Persian Version so compelling.
As we learn in the film, Shireen was married off at the age of 13 to Leila’s then 22 year old father, a doctor assigned to a remote Iranian village. When he cheats on her and impregnates another woman, a nurse in the same village who then dies during childbirth, the adolescent Shireen agrees to raise the other woman’s son as her own while the scandal forces the young couple to immigrate to America and reinvent themselves.
Dividing the story in this way as a filmic technique grounds the otherwise asymmetrical kaleidoscope of the movie’s vivid peregrinations into the world of memory and lost spaces. These breaks in the film undermine our preconceptions of causality and provide a means to understand the way unconscious trauma works and how we can begin to bridge its gaps. In order to describe reality, sometimes we must subvert it.
Keshavarz was adamant that her film is a piece of Iranian-American and not strictly Iranian cinema (à la Kiarostami) which rarely employs comedy. “It’s just not who I am. I like Iranian cinema. I know a lot about it; I’ve studied it; I’ve watched all of it. But it’s not true to my experience. I have to make something that’s true to who I am as an immigrant. And also those films don’t have much humor.”
However, she agreed with me that her film shares with the classics of Iranian cinema a strong will to defy form, by playing with time for example, in order to re-examine traumatic experiences. “Time is not linear when you’re dealing with trauma, and also when you’re dealing with memory and identity. So it was not done, and it was purposefully not done, in a linear way because the core of the film is the trauma, and the trauma has to come at the second act,” Keshavarz explained.
“Most traditional stories would have put the trauma at the beginning. I want you to dislike the mother, and then slowly slip away all of her layers until you get to her trauma, and then she literally hands the trauma to her daughter. The daughter repeats the exact same words as her mother. It’s all constructed in a very careful way. But I do love the chaos. It’s supposed to be like a rollercoaster.”
There is also a deep emotional function in the way the film divides the story. As Keshvarz pointed out, “It’s a way to deal with things that are hard to deal with that makes it bearable – to dig into the past and that level of trauma. It’s like a master class of empathy, I think. Don’t think of your parents now, think of them when they were 13, 11, 10 years old.” Moreover, it abruptly shifts the tone of the film from a slightly dramatic queer comedy to a haunting and tragic tale of patriarchy and immigration. “People think they’re watching a comedy. I think that’s why people cry so much when they watch the movie. I’m always shocked by how much people cry. And I think that’s because of the structure, because of the levity, that you’re surprised by what’s behind all of that.”
This sudden tonal shift lays bare the dark truths that underlie comedy, which is why for Freud humor always functioned as a privileged entryway into the unconscious. It’s no surprise that the film was conceived in the midst of Trump-era misogyny and xenophobia. “Around the same time Trump was elected, the only thing getting me through the day was comedy,” Keshavarz told me during our interview. “As I was writing it, more and more, I realized it was more a story about a mother and daughter. And it was an opportunity to think about cyclical traumas and how as women, we live our mothers’ trauma…True comedy comes from tragedy. It’s based on something very dark. And it was really that perspective that made me get through those times and made me feel alive, and made me feel like we could have some sort of emotion around it. I felt like levity was the only way to survive.”
Keshavarz’s cinematization of trauma is more than just a foray into visual storytelling or a therapeutic device, however. It’s also deeply political due to its subject matter. “As a writer you’re empowered to tell one thing or another. What story do we choose to tell as writers, particularly as people of a minority in America?” posed Keshavarz before proposing her own answer: “What we choose to tell is very political. They don’t have an image of who we are. We’re so dehumanized in the media that it’s so easy to take political actions without any consequences because they don’t have any concept of who we are. That’s very political in my opinion.”
The two fundamental, political themes of the film, immigration and queerness, which coalesce in the central character Leila, make the film an important challenge to typical “American-dream” conceptions of immigration. Keshavarz is not the first Iranian-American Brooklynite to explore Persian identity and sexuality on screen through comedy. Desiree Akhavan did so in 2014 with her film Appropriate Behavior (made after Keshavarz’s 2011 erotic thriller, Circumstance) and in 2018 with the critically acclaimed Hulu TV series The Bisexual, both of which she wrote, directed, and starred in.
There are striking similarities between Keshavarz and Akhavan. Appropriate Behavior and The Bisexual both center around a bisexual Iranian-American woman navigating dating, relationships, and identity in New York City. In this sense, The Persian Version certainly takes a cue from Akhavan’s work, but apart from being an exploration of trauma and its structure, The Persian Version combines the journeys of immigration and sexuality in a way that makes them two sides of the same coin. Rather than untangling the individual experiences of a single, queer Iranian-American woman, it tries to show how stories of immigration are intimately linked to those of queerness through the lens of trauma and patriarchy, which is what makes the film one of the first media of its kind.
Keshavarz is proud of what her film offers to Iranian-American culture. “We’ve never had something that shows both sides of our experience. It’s funny how sometimes you hear a critique like, “avalin filmi ke misazan dar bareye gay ha misazan! Mibini? Mage hame gay hastan?” (You see? The first film that they make about us is about the gays! As if we’re all gay!) But that’s the thing, it’s hard because you’re representing something, and people project so much onto it. But it’s also a reality. Queer identity within our culture is, I know, something hidden, but it’s something that’s so real. It’s just not talked about.”
“And why can’t that be the universal story as opposed to anything else? I think that it’s important that that can be the universal story of our immigration. It doesn’t have to be this completely heteronormative, cookie-cutter version that’s palatable for everyone. And that’s why I say, this story might not be palatable for everyone but it’s real, so you can’t say it’s not real, it’s literally based on my life. Why can’t that be the universal story?”
In many ways, Keshavarz’s story is the universal one, and not just for Iranian-Americans or immigrants. The Persian Version captures the reality of Iranian immigration to the United States by weaving true, lived experience with fiction in order to demonstrate how all narratives of selfhood and identity are just that – stories (incidentally the name of the bookstore in Echo Park where we had our conversation). Yet, it is precisely through these geopoetic modes of narrativity that we can begin to approach the impossibilities that define the trauma of who we are.