The INTO Interview

What brings drag, a pregnant lesbian, and defiant Persian women together?

· Updated on October 23, 2023

Sometimes, family just doesn’t understand who we are, but that doesn’t mean that we stop being ourselves. Leila’s (Layla Mohammadi) narrative from The Persian Version sums this up pretty well. As an Iranian American, Leila struggles balancing and embracing her two cultures, while defying societal labels. Did we mention that she’s queer?

Although Leila can keep her family at arms length while living in the “Big Apple,” her attempts to keep her life separate from them seemingly falls apart when a secret is exposed at a family dinner. But through this unceremonious reveal, Leila learns that her life and those of the women in her family, like her mother, Shireen (Niousha Noor), and her grandmother, affectionately referred to as Mamanjoon (Bella Warda), are more similar than she thinks. Written and directed by Maryam Keshavarz, The Persian Version is a heartfelt film equally full of laughs and tender moments, along with lively dance numbers and even more vibrant stories. 

INTO chatted with Keshavarz over the phone about telling the stories of queer people of color on film, how Cyndi Lauper is a gay icon, and how much of The Persian Version comes from her own narrative. 

PARK CITY, UTAH – JANUARY 23: Maryam Keshavarz attends the 26th Annual SAGindie Filmmakers Luncheon At Sundance at Cafe Terigo on January 23, 2023 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Fred Hayes/Getty Images for SAGindie)

In the trailer of The Persian Version, there’s a line that says “A True story, sort of.” How much of your story is within this film?

My mother’s stuff is pretty much verbatim. Mine is true, but in a little bit of a different order. My father had passed away many years before my daughter was born, but I wanted to keep it more of an uplifting comedy. I didn’t want the patriarch to die in the film, so he gets to live. Some things are heightened for comedic effect. In the film, [Leila] has eight brothers. In real life, I have seven and I grew up in New York with one bathroom.

What else? I think I was with my daughter’s father for a month, not a night, but it was pretty fast. We would go to Lamaze classes and everyone would be like, “Oh, how many years have you been together? We’ve been together for 14 years.” I’m like, “Oh, I’m eight months pregnant. So, eight months, three weeks.” The faces would drop. I was like, “Don’t judge. Okay?”

Certainly my choices were confusing to my family. When I came to tell them I was pregnant, just like in the scene, except for in real life, it was happening at a bar in Midtown. I tried to butter them up by taking them out to see Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo on Broadway. We went out for drinks, and just like [in the movie], I almost wimped out. Then my daughter’s father blurted it out and everyone was so confused. Like, “Wait, we thought you were still married. What’s going on?” It just threw everything into a tailspin. I’m like, “Don’t ask questions. I have issues.” There’s no straight path that we can foresee for ourselves.

Photo credit: The Persian Version

As of late, we have actors of color, like Stephanie Hsu in Everything Everywhere All at Once, Kiana Madeira in Fear Street, Ayo Edibiri and Havana Rose Liu in Bottoms, taking over film. Why do you think it’s important, now more than ever, to ensure that stories of queer people of color are told and told well?

We’ve been so marginalized within the narrative of the white queer experience. I think there’s so many different issues of intersectionality that are hard to articulate right, unless you’re from those communities. It really raises a whole element of our other identities and also how that intersectionality is a struggle, and how it defines who we are as much as anything else. I think it’s important to really think about that concept of intersectionality when we talk about identity.

I remember the first time I went to San Francisco, I went to a gay male club and they wouldn’t let us in. It was a bunch of girls. A lot were Middle Eastern or Asian. In that club, everyone was white and we just felt really alienated at some point. And then we realized, “Oh, there’s other spaces.”  The Bay Area has so many spaces. But that was just my first time when I was first coming to SF. And I was like, “Oh my god, even within the queer community, there’s a lot of work to be done. I think we’re in a different place now, but a lot of uncomfortable conversations have had to be had, for sure.

Often, that onus is on us, but I think it is part of our work to tell our stories and to put forth the greater narrative. It’s part of our evolution.

Photo credit: The Persian Version

Also, we have to talk about that dance sequence with gay icon Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” playing in the background

She is [a gay icon]! When I was a young kid, I remember when I first saw the music video for that song. I don’t know if you’ve gotten to look at it recently, but it was like…it’s all people of different races. It’s all different people, different gender identifications. It’s really ahead of its time and she really was, even then, at the forefront of this conversation. And then all these women going through so much adversity, both in Iran and America at the same time, still wanting to have a sense of joy and a sense of personhood, is why the song is perfect for the film. 

Photo credit: The Persian Version

One thing that’s also a source of joy is the fact that at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, you won the Audience Award for your film Circumstance and then you won it again for The Persian Version this year. How do you think you’ve changed as a creative since winning the award in 2011 and winning it again in 2023?

I know there was a real look of shock on my tired face. [There were] so many great films, and it’s really special to go back to the place where I premiered my first film in the exact same theater. Also, I had developed my first film at the Sundance Labs. So a lot of my identity, as a director, was nourished in that environment. It felt really nice to go back after so many years, but I don’t think what I’m doing has changed that radically.

I’ve always been interested in women who break the boundaries. All of my films, from my shorts to my documentary, are about women who don’t accept the status quo and they have to essentially break the rules, be that the law or the cultural rules of their society, to find a way to get what they need. I think those are the kind of characters I’m interested in. Maybe that’s the women I’ve always been surrounded by. I’m interested in that spirit.

Photo credit: The Persian Version

Lastly, what do you hope that people ultimately take away from watching The Persian Version?

I think a couple of different things. One is, well, I hope you call your mom. I think so much about the film is trying to find a language and a way to communicate with those that are close to us, that don’t necessarily have the same viewpoint as us, but we can find a way to accept each other and love each other. I hope you leave with a little bit of joy and hope about resilience, about the possibility to move forward beyond all hardships and the ability to break the cycle of trauma. And then, I hope you want to get a little dancing in and get some Persian food, too. I hope you really relate to my family. We can really understand that, I think as Americans, we’re not that different. I hope that no matter what your background is, you can see a reflection of yourself somehow. That was the reason I made the film.

The Persian Version is out now in select theaters and will be released in theaters nationwide on November 3.

Photo credit: Sony Pictures

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