Vermonter's Powerful Sundance Doc, 'Joonam,' Profiles Her Iranian American Family | Movie+TV Reviews | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Vermonter's Powerful Sundance Doc, 'Joonam,' Profiles Her Iranian American Family 

Published August 23, 2023 at 10:00 a.m. | Updated August 25, 2023 at 3:30 p.m.

click to enlarge Sierra Urich's Vermont-made doc profiles three generations of women from the Persian diaspora. - COURTESY OF SIERRA URICH
  • Courtesy of Sierra Urich
  • Sierra Urich's Vermont-made doc profiles three generations of women from the Persian diaspora.

Sure, everybody's excited about Beetlejuice 2. But smaller film shoots happen in Vermont all the time, and some of those less visible productions bear impressive fruit. Case in point: Joonam, the first documentary feature from director Sierra Urich, premiered in competition at the Sundance Film Festival in January. Much of this intimate, family-focused doc was shot at Urich's parents' home in Bristol; its title is a Farsi term of endearment.

Bearing awards from the Cleveland International Film Festival and Bentonville Film Festival, Joonam will have its Vermont premiere as part of the Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival on Saturday, August 26, 11:30 a.m., at Marquis Theatre in Middlebury, with the filmmaker in attendance.

The deal

Sierra Urich grew up in Bristol feeling disconnected from the heritage of her mother, Mitra Samimi-Urich, who left her native Iran in 1979 to study in the U.S. and never returned. Raised speaking only English, the filmmaker struggles to communicate in Farsi with her grandmother, Behjat Samimi.

The film chronicles Sierra's efforts to get closer to Behjat, a formidable widow who was born in 1932 and married at 14, and to learn the family history that could otherwise die with her. Sierra takes Farsi conversation lessons over Skype and dreams of traveling to Iran — over the protests of her mother, who fears for her safety under the current regime. When these three generations of women gather at Mitra's Vermont home for the main documentary shoot, tensions rise to the surface — but the affection between them is palpable, too.

Will you like it?

Early in Joonam, Sierra walks away from the camera across a snowy field whose monochrome flatness suggests a trackless wilderness, her form getting smaller and smaller. The shot is an apt visual metaphor for the feeling of being adrift, cut off from one's heritage and the sense of self that comes with it.

When one's background involves violence, trauma and political upheaval, however, reclaiming it can be difficult, and the filmmaker explores that difficulty with courageous transparency. It would have been easy for her to edit the footage of her grandmother into a straightforward, sentimental tribute. Joonam does celebrate Behjat's indomitability, but it also delves into the complex and sometimes painful relationships that we have with the past. The filmmaker doesn't spare herself as she shows how a determination to reconnect with our roots can threaten family bonds as well as strengthen them.

Fluent in both Farsi and English, Mitra serves as the interpreter between grandmother and granddaughter. Behjat is a natural storyteller, relating her memories with dramatic flourishes. But when she gives Sierra a gruesome account of the assassination of a family patriarch, Mitra stops translating, worrying that the story could prove politically dangerous to Sierra if she uses it in her film.

Mother and daughter clash periodically in the doc, with a frequent source of conflict being Mitra's desire not to be filmed unawares. We sense a deeper tension here, between a generation that still finds virtue in keeping up appearances and one that prefers the rawness of social media.

Urich foregrounds the visual media that we use to shape our sense of the past and present. She shows herself watching TikToks from Iran in an effort to soak up the youth culture. Illustrating her grandmother's and mother's stories, she uses editing and music to transform old photos and video footage from inert records into poetic, dreamlike interludes that make the past seem eerily present. In a moving montage of footage from Urich's childhood, we watch mother teach daughter to use a camcorder, which then becomes Sierra's tool for making sense of the world.

The film's conflict comes to a head when Sierra accuses her mother of "curating" her experience of Iran, allowing her to see it only from the perspective of someone who fled from the repressive regime. It's a wrenchingly relatable scene — how many of us have disagreed with family members about which parts of our collective past should be buried or unearthed?

Urich gives us material to see all sides of the question: her grandmother's fond nostalgia for an earlier era, her mother's justified fears, her own hunger to see the land of her ancestors. When Sierra's Farsi tutor goes to Iran and gives her a live virtual tour, it could be the most emotionally freighted video call ever put on film.

Toward the end of Joonam, Urich shows us footage of the women-led protests for human rights that rocked Iran nearly a year ago. In press materials, she connects the energy behind that resistance with her own desire to make the documentary: Both express "a longing to inherit more than exile from our families, a longing for home, a longing for our very identities."

That longing comes through clearly in this powerful, thought-provoking, tender film.

If you like this, try...

"Giti Jan" (Saturday, August 26, at MNFF): This short film from Iran, directed by Shayan Shahverdi, explores the experience of a young woman running a gauntlet of the male gaze.
The Butterfly Queen (Thursday, August 24, at MNFF): Interested in more Vermont-made films? Liam O'Connor-Genereaux filmed much of this free-wheeling, inclusive fantasy on his parents' sheep farm in South Ryegate.
Orpa (Friday, August 25, at MNFF): Each year, MNFF partners with the American Indonesian Cultural & Educational Foundation to screen the work of an Indonesian recipient of the AICEF Prize for Cross-Cultural Filmmaking. This year's winner is Theogracia Rumansara for a drama about a young Papuan girl who flees from an arranged marriage and finds friendship with an urban musician.
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About The Author

Margot Harrison

Margot Harrison

Margot Harrison is the Associate Editor at Seven Days; she coordinates literary and film coverage. In 2005, she won the John D. Donoghue award for arts criticism from the Vermont Press Association.


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