Sierra Urich has a documentary-ready family history that has rippled through generations. Her mother, Mitra, left Iran in 1979 to attend college in Amherst, Massachusetts. That was just months before the Islamic Revolution ousted the Shah and Ayatollah Khomeini came to power. Mitra’s mother Behjat also had to wait 16 years before she could go to America. Urich himself grew up in Vermont and has never been to Iran.
In her first feature, Urich talks to her mother and grandmother and explores her own feelings about her heritage, but the documentary veers uneasily between cultural and personal aspects, never fully examining either.
Junam Obviously affectionate. The title is an endearing Persian word, and much of the film reveals complex family dynamics, a very overused theme. But there are too few social and political backgrounds to set the family apart. A woman’s story about Iran and her memories arrive in lame snippets. Occasionally, old family photos, Home Her movies, and memorabilia appear on the screen. Mitra’s plane ticket from Tehran to New York, a video of young Bejat and her husband on a farm in Iran.
The documentary opens in snowy Vermont. Urich is trying to learn Farsi so he can communicate directly with his grandmother, who speaks very little English. Behjat is a strong presence, tough old her soul who got married at 14 and whose story is teased everywhere. She stays with her family on a farm in Vermont (Urich’s father occasionally appears in the background). Many of the movies are shot here.
Mitra is a pivotal figure, translator between Persian and English between mother and daughter. In one of her most explicit and frustrating scenes, Mitra is at a hair salon, telling a Thai-born beautician about her experiences as her immigrant mother. Mitra says she still suffers from PTSD from her days spent in Iran, with two of her uncles executed, her father imprisoned, and herself. This chatty scene is intriguing, but like many in the film, it fails to fill in the details of Mitra’s memories of her.
Instead, it leads to more surreal sections, including a video of a young Mitra-looking woman dancing in a clown costume, a photo of her in her youth, and a video of protesters chanting in the streets. Iran with Khomeini’s face on the banner. This impressionist touch stands out because the film is often bland and visually uninteresting (because, oddly enough, Urich attended his RI School of Design). In a more typical scene, Mitra and Behjat are sitting at her 4th of July small town parade, conversing about passing trucks and horses.
The film later returns to the importance of Mitra’s memory. Urich asks his grandmother to tell him the story of Bejat’s own grandfather’s murder. “He was a martyr,” he says Behjat. Mitra explodes. She said she was traumatized by hearing the violent story as a child, and still refused to translate it for fear that telling it on camera would put Sierra in danger. PTSD Mitra is clear, and her instinctive reaction speaks more to how her tragic past lingers than anything else in the documentary. Behjat never told the story of her grandfather’s murder, at least not in front of the cameras.
The current danger is real. Urich told her Persian teacher that she wanted to go to Iran, but knew it would be too dangerous today. It’s out of range. Junam It’s too cluttered and distanced from culture and politics to resonate with the news (which may be the movie’s greatest attraction), not just at first glance.