PARK CITY, UTAH – JANUARY 21: (L–R) Guest, Sierra Urich, Mitra Sammi-Urich, and Gary Urich attend the 2023 Sundance Film Festival “Joonam” premiere at the Egyptian Theatre on January 21, 2023 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Unique Nicole/Getty Images)
By Lucy Spicer
Have you ever felt a connection to a place you’ve never been?
Persian-American filmmaker Sierra Urich desperately wants to see Iran in person. She’s drawn to the homeland of her mother, Mitra, and her grandmother, Behjat, but everything she knows about the country she has experienced secondhand. Filmed over a summer at Urich’s parents’ home in beautifully verdant rural Vermont, Joonam — named after a Farsi term of endearment — brings together three generations of Iranian women with very different perspectives.
The director’s deeply personal documentary is authentic out of necessity. In fact, Joonam features several scenes that might have been left on the cutting room floor if this were another film. But is there any better way to relay family dynamics than to show three people squabbling over how to set up a shot?
The film seems so real that the mother-daughter dynamic present on stage — at the discussion following the film’s premiere at the Egyptian Theatre on January 21 — comes as no surprise. In a sweet moment that elicits giggles from the audience, Urich, ever the director, physically moves her mother’s arm closer to her face so that Mitra’s voice can be better amplified by the microphone.
More polished moments in the film weave together these three women’s similarities and differences. Behjat is a natural storyteller, always ready to regale her granddaughter with tales of her youth, including that of her wedding at just 14 years old. Mitra often acts as the interpreter, translating her mother’s words from Farsi to English for her daughter.
“I think when I started this film, I was really just curious about my grandmother’s stories,” says Urich during the Q&A. “It wasn’t until really going through the filming process that I realized it was about so much more, and about my relationship to Iran, and each of our relationships to a homeland that we’ve lost.”
The family tensions in Joonam will feel familiar to anyone who was brought up in an environment removed from their parents’ culture, especially the children of immigrants. While Urich expresses her frustration that she primarily knows Iran through her mother’s sheltering lens, Mitra prioritizes her daughter’s safety over immersing her in a culture that seems far removed from the Iran of her youth.
The home movie footage from Urich’s childhood included in the film is in stark contrast with contemporary scenes of social and political unrest in Iran. But even revolution can’t sever the pull to the homeland. “I can only really speak to my own experience,” says Urich when asked to comment on the turbulent situation in Iran today. But she feels proud to be even tangentially associated with the brave women fighting for their freedom.
“And I’m very proud of you, Sierra,” adds Mitra. “I’m just beyond any words. I think her film says it all.”
Urich’s grandmother, Behjat, passed away in 2022, but she got a glimpse of her granddaughter’s finished project before she died. “She saw some scenes here and there,” says Urich. “She was really tickled to see them.”
“If she were here today, she would love being [at the Festival],” the director adds. “She would be the rock star of the Festival.”