Sierra Urich on How to Be in Two Places at Once in “Joonam”

It wasn’t only the subject of Sierra Urich’s directorial debut that could be intimidating when she decided to make “Joonam,” delving into the history of her Iranian American family that gradually inched westward with each passing generation, with the filmmaker, born in the U.S. and based in Vermont, only now picking up a bit of Farsi, as she attempts to better understand her grandmother Behjat, who speaks no English and has been around long enough to have fond memories of Tehran, while her mother Mitra can acutely remember why they fled. But the size of it was potentially daunting as well when although Urich was an only child, she had dozens of relatives she could potentially bring into the story when both her mother and grandmother had plenty of siblings. However, as Urich was considering genealogy, she learned a bit about biology as well that could help clarify that there would be more than enough to tell simply within the connection between herself, her mother and her grandmother.

“I was transfixed by this generational notion, and at the time I had come across this pregnancy fact that at 20 weeks of pregnancy, if a woman is carrying a female embryo, that embryo has all the eggs that it will ever carry within itself within five months of gestation,” recalls Urich. “And I thought, “Wow, that’s a really interesting Russian nesting doll idea — that in one place and time, half of me was in Iran and on that soil and in that land.”

Despite her best efforts, Urich never physically steps foot in Iran for “Joonam” – at one point, her Farsi teacher actually advises during a lesson that “it’s the worst place in the world to go right now” and plans to travel abroad were complicated by the pandemic – but she nonetheless becomes ensconced in the world of her grandmother as she starts asking questions about her youth, a process that would seem easy enough until considering the emotional toll it takes on her mother Mitra, who becomes their translator. Having applied for a student visa as the country was thrust into chaos by the Islamic Revolution, Mitra hasn’t spent much time looking back on where she was raised since her acceptance into the University of Massachusetts, setting up a quiet life on a farm with her husband Gary, but with her daughter intent on creating a record for their family, she is brought closer to that history than she’s had to be in decades and when the subject is panful for her, has to decide how much she actually wants to relate to her daughter.

All the women “Joonam” show courage in coming forward to confront how their homeland has come to split them apart, and Urich shows additional daring as a filmmaker in reflecting such a fragmented experience, making inspired use of such rudimentary practices as different colored subtitles to denote different speakers to present a disparity between her mother and grandmother’s testimony to far more sophisticated interrogation of how to express the lingering hold that places have over people long after they have left them and memories that can seem at once to be so distant and so immediate in the film’s framing and structure. Revelations come to the surface for all involved, including the audience when the approach to the storytelling is so fresh and for as many barriers that the director sees throughout “Joonam,” both between nations and people, the film reminds that there continue to be ways to break through them. With the film now playing at the DCTV Firehouse in New York and part of a special event this Wednesday in Los Angeles at Vidiots, Urich graciously took the time to talk about how “Joonam” came together, gaining the confidence throughout the process to go further and how making the film is only part of the experience in completing an autobiographical project like this.

Something like this seems like a lot to take on. What made it the right time?

A part of it was I had no idea what I was getting myself into. [laughs] It’s my first feature film, and if I had known what was coming down the pipeline and how much work it would be and how difficult it would be at times, I might not have done it. But it really was that phone call from my mom that kicked everything off. I was at an art residency in Banff at the time, just getting back into my own artistic practice again after so many years working for other people, and she called me one of the last nights there at midnight [as I was] finishing an edit on this other unrelated project. It was such a great phone call that we had. My mom was sharing these stories from her mom that she had never heard before, and she wanted to tell me before she forgot them and we started talking about her childhood in Iran and comparing it to my experiences. We had this two- or three-hour-long phone call, which I recorded because I was in an edit studio working on something else and it just got my creative juices flowing. I thought that I should follow this trail of my own curiosity about my own family story that I never bothered to really examine. So I decided to come home and really film my grandmother’s stories, thinking that I would make some quaint, three-generational thing about the three of us, having no idea that it would go down this road of examining my own identity and all the tensions between our different relationships to Iran. It definitely took me by surprise.

The idea of language becomes central to this – how your mother comes to translate your grandmother, who can only speak in Farsi, but may be at times making decisions about what to interpret as your mother. Did you know that would be an early building block?

Yeah, I think a lot of things came together at once. It was this real nexus moment in my life because I had worked in narrative film for about five years, and I had fallen away from my own artistic practice just by working [on others’ projects], so I was trying to get back into doing my own work. And at the same time, I was getting more and more curious about learning the language. There’s always an element of embarrassment when you are a part of a culture but don’t really have the touchstones to prove your citizenship, as it were. I was in this place personally where I was just starting to take some classes in New York City, learning the alphabet and then that’s when my mom called, beckoning me home to gather these stories from my grandmother as I was also getting back to my own work, so it was this cosmic moment where all these things came together at once.

I really stepped into high gear with my language classes because I knew it was going to be a real just practical hurdle in filming with my grandmother and my mom if I didn’t have a little better understanding of the language, so I was trying to learn as fast as I could and I couldn’t learn nearly as fast enough as I needed, so I knew it would probably be a good element in the film because it was hard to film myself, but it was easy to keep track of my progress by just recording these online classes. I didn’t realize how much of the story it would actually become.

Coming from the visual arts background that you do, was this formally satisfying? In a way, it’s verite filmmaking, but then processing it as you do, it becomes something else.

Yeah, it was. I’m trying to unpack for myself why that is because I went to art school for illustration and then did a lot of painting and then at one point started veering off into the film film art world. The whole film is shot on a tripod, which depending on your artistic persuasion might be boring for some people, but for me, it felt like how I have drawn before or painted [where] you set up this tableau that you’re putting together and artistically, I would be satisfied watching the dynamics of the three of us come and go in and out of the frame. It also allowed me to be in the footage as well and there was something to that that I really, really enjoyed. And from a photography standpoint, there were no lights. It was just a camera, a tripod, and two prime lenses, so visually, I was always paying attention to the light and trying to create like a really beautiful portrait as best as I could.

It’s in line with how I’ve made other visual works in the past, even though it’s within the confines of a documentary, but in many ways, I don’t really like calling this a documentary. I just think of it more in terms of the language of film — it is not fiction, but it’s also totally constructed as well as a piece of art, so I don’t really think about it in terms of the conventions of documentary.

You’ve got one of the form’s great editors to collaborate with in Maya Daisy Hawke and I wonder when you’re navigating what your presence in the film will be, what was that collaboration like?

We had a really beautiful collaboration. I met Maya at the Sundance residency just as I was beginning the film back in 2018, a she was there with her own work that she was exploring and we just became friends. So it started where I would just send her cuts and get her feedback as a friend and someone whose work I really admired. Then slowly, as time went on, we started to work more and more intensively together where I would send her more cuts or we would sit together and I would show her what I had cut together. We would watch some raw footage together and talk about what a scene could be and I would cut together the scene and then we would watch what I cut and keep the conversation going. Then I would go off for many months and continue editing on my own.

We felt our way together through the material like that, which was really beautiful, and Maya was one of the only people that really encouraged me to edit the film myself. There were a lot of people saying that I shouldn’t or that it’s not smart, especially if it’s your first film or it’s personal, but she was really adamant from the beginning that I should be the one to edit it and that it should come from a personal place and we just had such a beautiful dynamic. She gave me the freedom where I could go off and make a massive mess and a bunch of discoveries and really rediscover myself in the footage and make all these personal revelations, watching myself and my family back.

The film came to fruition through this back and forth conversation of me going off and working alone and then us coming together and really putting the pieces into place and really fine-tuning and shaping things and experimenting, and Maya is a masterful editor, so she helped me so much with structure. It was a really beautiful collaboration that wasn’t on any sort of timeline and one of the most pleasurable parts of the film was editing with Maya. So much of the daring work in the film was through the confidence that I had in working with her because it’s so much easier to make bolder, riskier choices when you have someone next to you who’s saying, “Yeah, we should do this.”

Whether in the edit or during filming, was there anything that happened that took this in a direction you may not have expected?

The film went through a lot of different iterations about what the backstories would be for my family. There were more stories that my mother had told that didn’t make it into the final film, and at one point, I thought there would be an animated sequence, reimagining these stories from the past from my grandmother. Then at another point, I thought there would be reenactments — I even looked into working with someone in Iran to film some locations in Iran for me that I couldn’t go to myself and I spent a lot of time hand-wringing [over] what those options would be and exploring each one. But it became really clear as we did a few tests for each of those approaches that it really did the film a disservice [to] how intimate and also how closed the film is — it really is just within the three of us. It’s almost all set in Vermont. We made a conscious decision to really contain what you see of the past and what you see of Iran, so that the viewer should feel almost that same sense of out of richness with Iran and with these stories.

The more we did to visualize them, the more it fell out of the language of the film and also made Iran feel accessible in this way that my character in the film wasn’t feeling. That was a big choice that we made pretty far into the editing process — that some of these stories should really just be stories that you don’t see, you just hear and when we see Iran, it should be very intentional and only a few times. At a certain point, this film was going to be much more flashback heavy, but then we realized, no, the story is really in the present with the three of us.

It came out magnificently, and when this has been such a big thing to be putting out into the world, what has this all been like?

It’s been really wild. I’m in this new place specifically right now because it’s been about a year of showing the film around the world and when we premiered at Sundance back in January, I think I thought that the audience is watching this finished journey in the film, but because this project is so much about the filmmaking process, it’s really made me reflect now at the end of this year that it was really just like the midpoint that everyone was watching. It’s taken this entire year of traveling with the film to really step into my identity and for my mother and I to continue to reconcile with how public to be with our various views on Iran or our relationships to the past — or [just] me traveling to places that are possibly triggering for my mom because maybe I’m closer to Iran in some of these screenings. So it’s interesting that the final chapter was really not a part of the story of the film, but maybe in some of the next iterative work, if there is one, or fictional adaptation of this film, it will be. It’s like the process of filmmaking lives outside of the finished film and it’s actually a really big part of the story.

It’s also been such a treat to share it with people and have them see themselves in the film and then share their experiences and meet each other in the audience. There’s been so many screenings where people have been sitting in the audience and they’re like, “I don’t know this person. I just met them,” but we were watching a movie together and we had so many shared experiences and now we’re exchanging information. The communal ripple effect that the film is having has been so self-affirming for me too in my own place and in my own identity.

“Joonam” is now open in New York at the DCTV Firehouse through December 7th. It will also be part of a DIY/FYC Showcase in Los Angeles at Vidiots on December 6th at 6:30 pm. You can RSVP here.

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