Sierra Urich has a documentary-ready family history, with changes rippling through the generations. Her mother, Mitra, left Iran for college in Amherst, Massachusetts, in 1979, just months before the Islamic revolution deposed the Shah and put the Ayatollah Khomeini in power. Mitra’s mother, Behjat, had to wait 16 years before she could leave for the U.S. too. Urich herself grew up in Vermont and has never been to Iran.
If only the film matched the rich potential of these women’s stories. 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 the cultural and personal aspects, never fully examining either one.
The Bottom Line
Joonam is obviously loving. The title is a Farsi term of endearment, and much of the film reveals fraught family dynamics, that extremely well-worn theme. But there is too little social and political context, the very thing that sets the family apart. The women’s stories about Iran and their memories of it arrive in unsatisfying fragments. Occasionally old family photos, home movies and memorabilia appear on screen — Mitra’s plane ticket from Tehran to New York, video of a young Behjat and her husband on their farm in Iran — and the film would have been enriched by more of that archival material.
The documentary begins in snowy Vermont, where Urich is trying to learn Farsi so she can communicate directly with her grandmother, who speaks just a smattering of English. Behjat is a strong presence, a tough old soul who was married at 14 and whose story is teased throughout. She is staying with the family in their Vermont farmhouse (Urich’s father appearing occasionally in the background), where much of the film is shot.
Mitra is the pivotal figure, the Farsi-English translator between her own mother and daughter. In one of the most revealing yet frustrating scenes, Mitra is at the hair salon, talking to her Thai-born hairdresser about their experiences as immigrant mothers. In a mention that simply flies by, Mitra says that two of her uncles were executed, her father imprisoned and that she herself still has PTSD from her days in Iran. This talky scene is intriguing yet, like so much in the film, fails to fill in the details of Mitra’s memories.
Instead, it leads into a more surreal section, with a montage of images, including a video of a woman who appears to be the young Mitra dancing in a Pierrot costume, photographs of her in her youth, video of protestors chanting on the streets of Iran, with Khomeini’s face on banners. That impressionistic touch stands out because the film is more often mundane and visually uninteresting (odd, because Urich went to the R.I. School of Design). In a more typical scene, Mitra and Behjat sit at a small-town July 4th parade, having a conversation about the trucks and horses passing by.
The film later circles back to the importance of Mitra’s memories. Urich asks her grandmother to tell the story about Behjat’s own grandfather’s murder. “He was a martyr,” Behjat says. Mitra explodes. She says she was traumatized by hearing that violent story as a child, and refuses to translate out of fear that telling it on camera even now will put Sierra in danger. The PTSD Mitra referred to earlier is obvious, and her visceral reaction says more than anything else in the documentary about how a harrowing past lingers. Behjat never does tell the story of her grandfather’s murder, at least not on camera.
The present danger is real. Urich tells her Farsi teacher that she longs to go to Iran, but knows it would be too dangerous today. It is beyond the film’s scope to grapple with the current upheaval and women-led protests in that country. Even so, Joonam is too scattershot and distanced from culture and politics to resonate with the news — potentially the film’s greatest draw — in more than a glancing way.