Vermont documentarian explores her 'fractured Iranian identity' in 'Joonam'
The Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival is underway, showcasing more than 125 films. One of them was shot almost entirely in Bristol, Vermont, though it spans three generations and over 6,000 miles. Vermont filmmaker Sierra Urich’s debut documentary "Joonam" explores what she calls her “fractured Iranian identity.”
The film focuses on Sierra, her mother Mitra and her grandmother Behjat, touching on everything from mother-daughter relationships to what it means to be rooted in one place — and virtually banned from another.
Vermont Public's Jenn Jarecki recently spoke with filmmaker Sierra Urich ahead of her film's Vermont debut this Saturday. Their conversation is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Jenn Jarecki: Well, there's so much to unpack in this intimate portrait of your family's past and present. So, I'm going to start big picture: What were you setting out to make?
Sierra Urich: You know, when I started, I was setting out to make something completely different. I thought it was going to be a three-generation coming-of-age story that was much more naive, I would say. I thought I was coming home to gather stories from my grandmother and just learn about who she was when she was my age in Iran, in Ardabil, in northern Iran. And so, it wasn't until I was really involved in the filming process that I started to uncover my own feelings about my own fractured identity, and how each of us has a different relationship with Iran and with that past. But I was coming at it from a much different place when I began, and it wasn't until I was really in the filmmaking process that I discovered my own complicated feelings about my identity.
And you are so in the filmmaking process because not only are you the filmmaker, but you're a central character as well. What was your experience like guiding the film from within?
That's a great question. You know, I think I was coming at it from a filmmaker's perspective in the beginning. I really wanted the shots to be beautiful. I come, you know, from an artist's background, I had this grand idea of what the film would look like. And as so many of us know, when we're spending time with family, we just so easily fall into our roles as a child or as a daughter. And so very quickly, I became more of a daughter than a filmmaker. And it was in the editing process that we realized that that material was so interesting and universal and tied to each of our experiences with Iran as our heritage as well. And so even though I was struggling while we were filming, it was that material of trying to be both filmmaker and daughter that became so integral to the film's story, ultimately.
I think so often when you see these stories that are immigrant stories, it focuses on the trauma of leaving one's home. And I really wanted this film to also be joyous and to celebrate these three women in my family — myself included, but my mother and grandmother who bring so much joy as well.Sierra Urich
Sierra, you grew up in Vermont, how did small-town life influence your filmmaking?
Yeah, you know, yeah, so I grew up in Bristol. And I think as so many Vermonters would agree, the land and the natural landscape is such a big part of our identities as Vermonters. And so, when I was filming, I kept on finding myself standing out in the field with a camera or, you know, shooting the sky or shooting the changing seasons. So, I didn't really know why I was doing that, maybe I was trying to take a break from all of the intense family situations that I was also filming. But when we were looking at the footage in the edit, it became really obvious that connection to land was so important in this story, both my disconnection to the land in Iran and my deep connection to the land in Vermont. And how there are so many visual similarities for my mother, on this farm that my grandmother and grandfather had in Iran, that the land was just like this beautiful metaphor of connection and disconnection.
Well, I'm glad you brought up your grandma because that's where I wanted to go next because she lights up like every scene that she's in. And I understand that you lost her. I'm so sorry. Will you share with us what it was like spending that time with her making this film?
Yeah, it was incredible. I'm so glad that, you know, now that she's gone, I had no idea that I was swimming the last five years of her life and to have the privilege to spend that amount of intense time with her is such a gift, and I'm so glad that I had the opportunity to do that. It was also so interesting, because we have a language barrier, of course, and I was learning Farsi while we were filming. And so, I was practicing with her, I was, you know, failing to communicate with her, there were frustrations, trying to communicate through my mother and not being able to have that direct relationship. But later when we got the transcripts back, and I could read all of the things that she was saying in the moment when I was there, speaking about me or to me, it was uncovering this whole other layer of my grandmother who I had never known before. She was just this caricature of a grandmother and now I was discovering that she was funny and she was witty and she was making fun of me, and it was just, it was like meeting a completely new person.
OK, so there are plenty of serious themes in your film, but you're also able to find a lot of humor throughout. Why was it important to include that?
You know, humor is a big part of who I am. And it's a big part of my grandmother and my mother as well. And so, I think so often when you see these stories that are immigrant stories, it focuses on the trauma of leaving one's home. And I really wanted this film to also be joyous and to celebrate these three women in my family — myself included, but my mother and grandmother who bring so much joy as well. And so, I wanted it to be layered, and to be a pleasant thing for other Iranians to watch as well who have to so often sit through stories that are so painful. So, I wanted to also bring some joy to the film.
"Joonam" played at the Sundance Film Festival this year, among other places, how has it felt to you to see the reception it's gotten?
It's been incredible, Sundance was such a surprise and such a treat to be on this world stage from filming in Bristol, Vermont with my family and me, it was such a small crew to then suddenly being there was incredible. And the reception has been amazing in Vermont. There has been such high demand for the film, which is playing this Saturday and Middlebury that the Marquis Theatre has actually decided to play it simultaneously on two screens. And so everyone is really excited to see the film here and I'm so excited to share it with the local community.
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