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‘The Persian Version’ Director Has Always Lived in the In-Between

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I struggled with two things. One was the balance of the comedy and the drama. Another was to have an epic tale that was so intimate. That was very important for me, not to get lost in the period detail but to know that this is a story of essentially three women and to really ground it. And to do that, I decided that each character would have a different genre that’s reflective of who they are: So that the daughter is more ’80s-’90s pop. The grandmother is a tall teller of tales, as all grandmothers are, so she gets a spaghetti western. And then the mother, who, even though she’s created a new identity, is still traumatized by an old past — what you typically think of Persian films, which is like [an Abbas] Kiarostami sort of film.

For me, it was important that all three women get to tell at least their version of the story. When I was writing it, I couldn’t crack the story until I realized my mother was the other writer. Because she came to this country to write her own future, rewrite her life. Once I got that, everything else fell into place. I realized all the men are just a chorus to our stories. And typically, it’s the other way around.

On that note, do you really have eight brothers?

In real life, I have seven brothers. In the story, I have eight. But I did grow up with one bathroom. I’m very traumatized to this day. I just have to have my own bathroom. [Laughs]

The chaos of many siblings adds levity for sure. The movie, despite tackling serious topics, is also largely a comedy packed with big food scenes, choreographed dance sequences and tons of music, including Wet Leg at the start, but also Cyndi Lauper and Gagoosh.

Certainly when I was a kid, Iran was synonymous with terrorist. And that was not my experience of Iran or Iranians. I’m like, “We’re so lazy. How can we be terrorists? We like to take long naps after lunch.” But honestly, it’s not the people I know; it’s not the culture and the celebration, the music, food. That’s a real political thing, too, what aspects of our culture are shown. I mean, if we can dehumanize people, it’s so much easier to invade them and to kill them and to take their oil and to create nameless wars, faceless wars. So I think the reason I went into cinema post-9/11 was to create a more nuanced view of our world. This film is in some ways a culmination of my entire career. I don’t believe in all this divisive rhetoric, and I feel like humor is a way that we can connect.

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