“Joonam” is a beautiful debut documentary from Iranian-American filmmaker Sierra Urich. In the film, Urich connects with her Persian mother and grandmother while learning Farsi and trying to build her own foundation with her Iranian culture. The camera acts as an intermediary between the women as they deepen their understanding of each other and address tensions that have built up surrounding their identities. Each woman has her own distinct personality, but the grandmother positively shines throughout the film. She is cracking jokes constantly, is strong-willed, and sometimes can be heard softly mumbling the most loving, grandmother-esque words of endearment. Urich uses the film as a way to learn about her family’s history, connect to her cultural roots, and share vulnerable parts of herself. This film is an amazing debut feature, and perhaps my favorite film to come out of the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.
I’m interested in filmmaking as a tool of connection. Why did you choose filmmaking as a way to connect with your family and culture?
I come from a visual background. I went to school for painting and illustration so I was always coming to the world from a visual perspective. So I think when my grandmother started opening up to my mom about all these questions from her youth, it was the natural step for me to think about it in visual terms, or in film terms. I think the reason it’s not a book or something written is because a lot of times I can’t really put words to these feelings of identity or displacement, but I can express it visually. So I think it came from a personal place of how I express myself to the world and how I feel that I can communicate best.
Do you think that having the camera there helped with your connection to your mom and grandma to have an intermediary present?
Definitely. I think having the camera between us allows you to ask questions of your family that maybe you wouldn’t feel so comfortable asking. Or just gives you a reason to ask stuff. I’m naturally a little more of a reserved and shy person, so having the camera with me was a tool but it was almost like a barrier or shield in some way that makes you feel like it’s not just the two of us, there’s this other entity allowing us to open up. Almost as if there’s a therapist in the room with you or something.
What kind of things in this process were you learning about yourself as you were going through this?
This is my first feature film so there was a huge learning curve just in terms of learning how to make a film in general. And learning how to make a personal film on top of all of that.
I really started this film from one place where it was about my grandmother and my grandmother’s stories. Iran was this eroticized place for me for so long. When she started telling me stories they sounded so foreign to me and I wanted to know more about it. She hadn’t opened up like this before. And then it wasn’t until I was really in the thick of it with my family that I realized I had all this frustration and built up angst about my own Iranian identity and lack thereof. My mom and family tried to protect me, but ultimately kept me separate from the thing I desire so much for. So it was a learning experience for me for every sense of the word, both as a filmmaker and on a personal level. Even just how to navigate between my mom and the camera and the grandmother and all of our different personalities.
To touch on one of those things you said, I had written down a quote that you had said to your mom “I feel like you made me an outsider because you’re too afraid.” You were saying that you wanted to feel like this belongs to you too. I feel like that resonates with so many people who are in our generation right now. I know it resonates with me. I have an immigrant family who really wanted to be American and leave their cultures behind for whatever reason. Then I’m here, like I want to feel like I’m still a part of this, but I don’t speak those languages either because they wouldn’t speak their language and wanted to speak English.
Can you talk about that feeling of disconnection and how that impacted you in your life up until that point?
I think because I am half, my father isn’t Iranian, we only spoke English at home so I never really learned Farsi. So that’s a huge identifier, right, to feel a part of something when you actually can talk to people. Like if you’re at a family function or event, people see you and you look Persian and they introduce themselves to you and then immediately you have to say “oh I’m so sorry, I don’t really speak the language” and then their demeanor completely changes and there’s an embarrassment level. So you end up kind of being separate.
But then that line in the film is more about that tension that exists between the generations. There’s where, like you said, either your family came here and really wanted to Americanize and didn’t want to pass on the culture as much in order for you to have an easier life, in order for you to not be discriminated against in the US, or from my family’s perspective it was more so my mom can only give me this much from Iran because she has all this fear of her home country. And she has fear rightly so because it’s this authoritarian state. But in that moment, with where Iran is today, that’s something that I think I really put onto my mom feeling like ‘you’re the person who’s supposed allow me to have this part of my identity, but it feels like you’re standing me in the way to try to protect me but it’s keeping me separate. Safe, but separate.’ And now looking at it, I realize that I was really putting all my frustration with the authoritarian state onto my mother, because she can only give me so much. And I can yell at my mom but I can’t yell at the regime.
I think that’s kind of the messy soup of being the child of an immigrant. So much of your cultural identity is wrapped up in your family’s identity. But it doesn’t always feel like it’s directly related to you as a person. And especially if you can’t go to the place where your family is from, what do you have? What is really yours at that point to own or feel like you belong to? All those messy feelings were wrapped up in that one thing I said to my mom, and there’s no easy answer unfortunately.
I had this interesting experience with my grandma, who is from Sweden. My grandpa didn’t allow her to speak Swedish once she got here, so her kids didn’t learn Swedish so we don’t speak it either. She had a stroke recently, and she temporarily forgot how to speak English. But she would at me specifically because I look most like her, and she would assume I could understand her and speak Swedish. It’s like what you’re saying with people assuming you speak Farsi because you look like you would. She was looking at me knowing who I was, but because I look so much like her she was assuming I could be her translator for the world.
It’s like a dissociative thing where you know you are a part of this history and identity, but if you can’t go there, if you can’t speak the language, if all you really have is the food or some traditional holidays, you can feel like a phony sometimes. Like I guess I kind of belong to this identity, but do I really? Like what of it is actually mine that I can personally connect with? I think a lot of people in that generation or in that place in life are kind of grappling with those questions. There’s an embarrassment to it sometimes. You can see the heartbreak on people’s faces when you can’t really walk the walk or speak in the right tone or accent.
Yeah, I feel so in between. I want to be connected but I’m not quite there.
I feel like I saw a lot of films and tv shows about immigrant families that were usually about how the home was one thing where you speak a language and eat certain foods, and then you go to school or work and it’s a whole different thing. And that wasn’t my experience at all so I never really connected with those immigrant stories because my home life was really similar to my school life. I spoke English at home and at school. I didn’t really think of myself as Persian, I thought it was kind of just my mom’s thing and not my thing. So that’s what I was trying to really bring to light with this film so other people who might have a similar background can feel a little bit of kinship or have something that speaks to them.
We talked about some of the things you learned, but especially since this is your first film, what are some of the challenges you faced?
I think a big one is you have to prove yourself to the industry. No one really knows you and they are reluctant to fund you if they don’t know if you’ve made anything that they can rely on. A big challenge is just getting people to trust that you know what you’re doing, and that what you make will be good, and that you won’t not finish the project.
Because the film is almost fully grant-funded I was consistently writing applications and applying to grants. And it was really helpful in a lot of ways and I’m so glad it was grant-funded because I maintained control the entire time. But it was a lot of work. You’re constantly having to re-explain why your story is worthy or why you’re worthy. And I think that’s a big thing for women in this industry and a huge thing for first-time filmmakers in this industry.
What are some of the ways you see your mom or your grandma in you?
I think my grandmother has this amazing sense of humor, which is something that I didn’t really know about until getting the transcripts back for the subtitles. I was like, oh my god she’s hilarious! I had no idea she was cracking jokes this entire time while I was like putting a mic on her. So I think we share a sense of humor.
My mother is incredibly determined. She is just the most driven person I know who just will not take no for an answer, and comes up with a solution for everything. I’d like to think that I have some of that from her.
But I think the throughline for the three of us that I was hoping to weave through the film is that we’re all very fiercely independent women. Each of our stories of our formative years are about striving for independence. For my grandmother, it was striving for independence from her mother. She had a strict upbringing and it was in a very conservative part of Iran. So for her, marriage was the way to get away and be free to have her own house and make her own decisions.
And my mom was also striving for independence in coming to the US. This isn’t in the film so much, but when she was in the US she was away from her mom and suddenly she had all this freedom where her mom isn’t telling her what to do anymore. So there’s this separation that’s really tragic, but there’s also a freedom for her being in this new country by herself and getting to make her own decisions.
And then for me this film is that too. Like ok, what is Iran for me without the family narrative or without family trauma? How can I feel connected to this place without them? Have my own independent connection. So I think the three of us are very independent people. We’re all trying to direct the film ourselves at one point. Sometimes we’re in contrast with each other.
The dynamics are so adorable. I was laughing-crying-laughing. I absolutely loved it.
I’m curious to hear some words of wisdom your grandma has given you, or something you’ve really taken from her?
She says she wishes that after an argument, and I think she was talking about with her husband but it applies to everything I think, she wishes she had apologized for herself. So I say, taking ownership for your mistakes.
Also she was really about balance. Balance of work and life and rest and fun. It’s something that’s really pertinent right now because I’m burned out. We’re at Sundance and are running from event to event, from interview to screening, to photoshoots. In making artistic works, give yourself time away from it. Don’t try and just hammer it into existence. Give yourself some space to breathe and think things through. Let things come up naturally.
I feel like we come from people who worked really hard and that balance wasn’t always there, so it’s nice to hear that from your grandma.
I think that as a woman in this industry you’re constantly having to do double time to prove that you’re just as worthy or that you can pull something off. Or that you’re articulate or well-spoken. That can really run you down, especially because there’s all this criticism that’s thrown your way a lot of the time. One of my mentors on this project told me that “rushing is the tool of the oppressor” and I really agree with that. Take your time with your work and what you’re doing in life. Anything that’s rushed isn’t deserving of your energy.
Even in the editing process, I worked with our supervising editor and the most productive times were just talking to each other. Not sitting in front of the computer, not trying to push out a rough cut. But just chatting about our families, about our thoughts. Just taking a walk without talking about the film, or getting lunch and letting things percolate in the background. I think actively not doing something is actually really important in the creative field. Just check out for a bit and good ideas come on their own.
Any advice for emerging female or non-binary filmmakers?
Rest, definitely rest. Take naps. Life is too hard and there’s too much pressure.
A lot of people are going to give you a lot of no’s, and it’s not your problem. It’s not about you. If you are persistent, you can make what you want to make happen. And actually it’s critical that you do. This world is full of so many male filmmakers with specific perspectives of the world, and it’s deeply boring. Please be persistent because even if you’re getting a million no’s from people…I think I applied to like 40 grants and got 10 percent of that. There’s a whole world of people that are waiting for you to finish what you are making and to see what you’re doing.