Maryam Keshavarz never dreamed of becoming a filmmaker when she was a Northwestern student in the mid-1990s. The daughter of Iranian immigrants didn’t know that world existed.
Her new “more-than-semiautobiographical” film, The Persian Version, is based on her experience growing up in New York City in a boisterous Iranian American family. It opens in theaters nationwide Nov. 3. The Sony Pictures Classics film won the Audience Award and the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival in the U.S. dramatic competition. Keshavarz is the only director in Sundance history to claim the Audience Award twice in the drama category. Her 2011 film Circumstance also won the award.
Northwestern Magazine’s Sean Hargadon talked with her about the inspiration for the film and her Northwestern family.
What inspired this film?
I wanted to create a story that was reflective of my community, that was full of joy. Even though I was born in America, I learned how to be “American” by watching TV. I loved all the big ’80s sitcoms, but I never saw myself reflected in those shows. And I just took that as a given.
But later, there was a lot of xenophobic rhetoric going around, and I really wanted to create a story that was reflective of my community. I wanted to write something full of irreverence and fun.
Anyone could watch this film and feel connected to this wild family, regardless of your political background. You could say, “This Iranian American family is like my Italian family, like my Irish family.” Comedy and the absurdity of family can be a way to break through all our political differences. It is the film I’ve always wanted to see on screen.
What inspires your filmmaking more generally?
I love things that are very personal to filmmakers. I loved Lulu Wang’s The Farewell and Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, films that are based on the writer’s personal experience. I find inspiration in people who are truthful and take risks to tell something about their families and communities — communities where often we’re told that we shouldn’t talk about certain things to save face.
Is “The Persian Version” your story?
Yes! What better place to mine humiliating moments than in your own life. When I asked my brother if I could get the rights to tell the story, I said “Don’t worry, you’re mostly just the chorus. It’s really mom’s and my story.” I promised my family that the person who would look the worst is me. I said, “I’m going to delve into my own issues, so you can rest assured that everyone else will look splendid compared to me.”
How did Northwestern set you on the path to becoming a filmmaker?
We’re a Northwestern family. Four of the eight kids in my family went to Northwestern. My twin brother lived in CCS [the Residential College of Cultural and Community Studies], the international dorm on north campus. And the first day of school I met this girl who lived below him named Vivian Garcia. She did radical political theater. I had never met anyone like her in my life. She introduced me to Chicago theater. She introduced me to activism and art and international cinema. And it was eye-opening. I had never been exposed to that as an immigrant kid. [Garcia ’98, a musician, recorded an original song on The Persian Version soundtrack.]
At Northwestern I was always very curious and up for exploring things that were outside of my wheelhouse. I took painting. I took integrated arts, where I learned about jazz and theater and politics. That was hugely influential. I entered Northwestern as a math and science major, but I left as a women’s studies and comparative literature major and even studied abroad in Latin America. Northwestern opened up my whole brain. It helped me understand that there were different ways to look at the world and that we could draw from our own specific cultural experiences to create something new. That’s something I had never even considered.
I certainly never thought I would become a filmmaker when I entered Northwestern. That didn’t come till much later.
You’ve said that when you were a student you didn’t know filmmaking was an option for someone from your background. Have things changed in your two decades in the industry?
I would call it forced progress. It’s been an ongoing struggle. I do think it’s interesting that The Persian Version was made by a major studio — Sony Worldwide — and it’s filmed in two different languages in two different countries.
It’s a very specific time in our history in American cinema for this idea of biculturalism. The fact that a foreign language film, Parasite, won the 2020 Oscar for best picture or that Squid Game — also not in English — is the biggest show in history for Netflix, I think indicates that there is a market for entertainment with an international focus — things that are not just in a straight box. I don’t think my film would have been made 10 or 15 years ago. It’s no longer a dirty word to say something is “international.”
We have also started to create new communities. Among women directors, we’ve started groups for Middle Eastern Americans in media … that have been wildly beneficial. I mean, it’s what men have always done in the “good-old-boys clubs,” right? They always created groups where everyone looks alike, and they would help each other out. That was a natural thing. And I don’t think enough women — and definitely not enough immigrants — do that. … We can take control of the narrative by helping each other.