Even if Sierra Urich wasn’t cooking at the start of “Joonam,” you can tell that something is stirring as she practices Farsi in the snowy plains of Vermont. A language it seems she might already know given the rest of her family’s roots in Iran, it was not passed down to her when her mother Mitra left the country and a decision was made to raise her as an American when it was too painful for Mitra to look back and wanted her daughter only to look forward. However, now 28, Urich receives a call from her mother saying that as her mother Behjat is getting older, the time is right to ask questions Urich has long wanted answers for, though Mitra knows she’d be required to translate most of it, even with Urich’s studies. This puts all involved in an awkward situation as Urich pursues the opportunity to fulfill what seems like a missing piece in her own life, but it creates an elegant cinematic metaphor in the endearing doc when her family, now reunited in the U.S., remains divided in other ways after fleeing the only homeland they ever knew, with all filtering their experience through a different generational lens.
Throughout “Joonam,” what seems like it would be the heaviest lifting narratively appears to happen with ease, as a mundane visit to a salon where Mitra gets her hair done sparks a conversation with her Thai stylist about what traditions from the old country they decided were important to keep their children conscious of as they strived to assimilate into U.S. culture, and cutbacks to her husband and Urich’s father Gary, an American by birth, can be seen using his idle time fiddling around on the guitar and going duck hunting, unburdened by the same concerns that the women in his life have had to carry with them because of their bloodline to Iran. Of the three, Behjat looks to be the most relaxed, now usually found nestled into a comfy lounge chair where she receives calls from all around as if she was royalty. There are nine other grandkids for her to dote on besides Urich, but others in the family are largely kept out of view in “Joonam,” so one can only imagine the stories they have when there’s so much within Mitra and Urich’s connection to her, all cramming into an SUV together to stay at Mitra’s idyllic farmhouse, a home to chickens much like the sheep the sheep that her father once tended to in Iran.
There are photos and scraps of footage that can act as memories when words fail either because they are too difficult emotionally to articulate or something’s lost in translation between the game of telephone that the women have to play because of Urich’s inability to speak Farsi. However, the director ultimately uses this obstacle to ingenious effect in the film’s subtitles where at times only what she comprehends is translated into English and Mitra and Behjat’s dialogue is shaded in different colors, not only to clarify who’s speaking but the disparity in what they’re saying as they have different memories of Iran.
If the country remains an abstraction for Urich, going so far as to have her language tutor livestream from Tehran for her to see the city when she’s discouraged at every turn from traveling there herself, she has an acute sense of how it has created fissures in her family, working with editor Daisy Maya Hawke to brilliantly echo these fractures in the edit as a fuller picture starts to come together only when she, Mitra and Behjat start sharing memories in every sense of the term. It’s hardly an easy process when Urich accuses her mother of curating Behjat’s experience in her translation, but then again any omission in “Joonam” appear to have as much meaning as what’s actually able to be said and in communicating so distinctly what’s been lost by so many who have been ripped apart from their loved ones, the film feels like the foundation on which a future can be built, both for the family and the first-time filmmaker who has found a blazingly original form of personal expression.
“Joonam” will screen at the Sundance Film Festival on January 27th at 8:45 am at the Library Center Theatre in Park City and is available online through January 29th.