(USA, 103 min.)
Dir. Sierra Urich
Programme: U.S. Documentary Competition (World Premiere)
There’s a funny moment in Sierra Urich’s Joonam. She’s at her family’s Vermont home setting up a candid shot between her mother, Mitra, and grandmother, Behjat. The camera rolls as Urich performs a sound check. She’s a fair distance from her elders and they chat away as they grow impatient. Mitra mutters to Behjat that kids of Urich’s generation, particularly in the West, have a sense of entitlement to boss their parents around. Behjat nods, but replies with a laugh that the sentiment is true of all children.
Urich doesn’t speak Farsi, but her mother and grandmother, who both grew up in Iran, do. The director therefore doesn’t grasp the conversation in the moment, but discovers it later upon translation. Joonam thrives thanks to candid moments of discovery like this one. While the film is unabashedly rough around the edges, it unearths moving revelations as Urich returns to the material. The moments that most resemble outtakes take Joonam beyond a mere personal exercise through family home videos and archives.
Another thread sees Urich try to learn Farsi with several tutors. The plans don’t go well, especially in one case, due to a family connection back home. One gets a sense that the journey for Joonam was directionless, but in discovering this moment between her mother and grandmother, Urich captures the sense of loss at the heart of her film. Joonam sees the director embark on a quest to relate to her Iranian roots. Iran is simply a faraway place to her. It’s a point of origin to which she feels rootless. Going back to Iran isn’t possible, either, so she can only return through the family archives or via memories of her elders.
“Are We There Yet?”
Named for a term of endearment that pops up amid dialogue, Joonam is a road movie of sorts as Urich travels with Mitra and Behjat. She interviews her grandmother with her mother translating during their travels. While these conversations themselves don’t yield much, they’re important conduits for the candid moments in between. Urich often leaves the camera rolling as the women hang out in their hotel room or make dinner. While the effect at first seems haphazard, it later illustrates her effort to capture every grain of truth among fragmented families. Behjat in particular plays the role of the reluctant star well. It’s clear that spending time with her granddaughter is worth the awkwardness of being on camera.
Joonam fills in details of the family memory bank using old home movies that captured the family’s journey to America. Mitra recalls being rebellious during the Iranian Revolution, hence her reluctance to return, and shares a story of forging a life in America. There are heartfelt, tearful recollections in voiceover about lost time. Meanwhile, Urich buttresses the theme of the family’s fragmentation with joyful episodes from the airport that captured a long overdue reunion. As Urich makes sense of her family history, so too should immigrants and children of immigrants see their stories reflected in these three generations of women.
The “Frowny Face”
Urich also captures the tension that builds in families that are reluctant to revisit the past. Joonam finds its most universal moment in a scene that other directors might have left in the editing suite, or not filmed at all. The film ends with a blowout between Urich and her mother. Mitra, tired of filming, doesn’t want the camera on her while she’s cooking. She thinks her daughter aims to capture her “frowny face.” Urich, ever the rebel, keeps rolling as she argues with her mother, whose face becomes increasingly frowny by the second.
On one hand, Joonam illustrates how each woman projects the trauma of dislocation onto the other. Mitra represents her daughter’s anger at the Iranian state, while Sierra has a level of freedom to which her mother could only aspire in her youth. Throughout the argument, Behjat yells from the bathroom. She’s done getting ready for the next shot and needs a hand. Sierra and Mitra register the request, but they keep bickering. All the while, Behjat keeps calling helplessly from the bathroom. No matter their origins, all families are, in a sense, the same.