‘Joonam’ Review: An Iranian-American Woman Explores Her Heritage

Sierra Urich’s grandmother, Behjat, has the tart, callused demeanor that comes from a life of tumult and loss. Married at 14 to an Iranian soldier, she grieved for older relatives who were murdered or executed, and raised a family that was scattered in the wake of the Iranian Revolution: As her children emigrated to the United States, she was unable to see them for 16 years, finally joining them in her mid-sixties. Her daughter Mitra, Urich’s mother, left Iran for New England in 1979; haunted by memories of her upbringing and her father’s imprisonment under the police state, she’s too terrified ever to return. Born and raised in upper-class Vermont, Urich’s own life has been comparatively serene and all-American, to the extent that she’s troubled by her distance from her Persian heritage and history. A mixture of cinematic family album and candid family therapy, “Joonam” represents her attempt to bridge that gap.

That sense of frustrated separation from a shared family narrative is both a feature and a bug of Urich’s debut, which is affectingly marked by the chasms in understanding between first- and second-generation immigrants — yet can’t help but feel occasionally stymied by its maker’s perspective, as the least seasoned and least informed of the film’s three female principals. “Joonam” is most engaging when it hands over to Behjat and Mitra, as they narrate their life stories with a mixture of nostalgia and traumatized regret, and when it dives into evocative archives of family photos and video, some so far removed from Urich’s experience as to seem positively mythical. When it drifts to the filmmaker’s halting attempts to connect with her roots — and her admonishment of her mother for not assisting more in this regard — the doc loses focus, unsure of either its questions or its answers.

What powers this Sundance competition premiere through its lulls and blurs is the warmth and good humor of its core family dynamic — as implied by the title, a Farsi term of endearment. Farsi itself is a sore point in Urich’s investigation: She cannot speak the language, while Behjat’s English is limited, and she fears that her relationship with her grandmother, while affectionate, is fundamentally impeded by this barrier. Though the film is punctuated by her attempts to learn Farsi via tapes and a series of online tutors, it’s mostly Mitra who is required to act as their interpreter, particularly as Urich sets out to learn more about the family’s Persian past.

Still, Urich gradually realizes that certain details are not just being lost in translation, but concealed, by a mother keen to protect her daughter from that which still plagues her. In its most moving and revealing scene, Mitra confides in her Thai hairdresser about her lingering PTSD from her Iranian youth, and the two women, both immigrant mothers, discuss the difficulties of keeping children both bound to, and independent from, their roots. The tone is conversational rather than penetrating, but the chat nonetheless dredges up rawer confessions than most of the film’s more fraught mother-daughter exchanges.

Urich, who has never traveled to Iran, imagines some ungraspable insight might be gained from seeing it for herself — though she’s mindful of the dangers and impracticalities of such a trip, and the mere suggestion of it sends Mitra into a panic. Instead, she gleans impressions of the country from the same audiovisual scraps that she passes on to her audience: those old, grainy family videos of everyday togetherness, archival flashes of historical protests, one of her tutors offering a FaceTime tour of central Tehran and, somewhat ill-fittingly, TikTok videos from a younger generation of restless Iranians.

Urich edits these montages with an often striking sense of contrast and piquant image selection, but we share her sense that a bigger picture is just out of view. Certain key chapters of family history are teased but never explained; even the filmmaker’s present-day life and social circle never emerge in full. While certain ellipses and blind spots poignantly indicate the family memories that are inevitably shed from one generation to the next, “Joonam” also feels light on the more attainable context, both historical and personal, that could bond and brighten its fragments.

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