MARYAM - DVD review

Maryam reminds us of those elements of humanity that unite us

James Plath's picture

After September 11th, friends of writer-director Ramin Serry and producer Shauna Lyon told them that they had to do whatever it took to get their film "Maryam" out quickly, because it was suddenly so relevant. And so the duo released the film on their own, starting with four prints and, with the help of film critic Roger Ebert, eventually opening in 25 cities. Ebert featured "Maryam" on his show and called it "important and very moving." Although he and his partner are sometimes free with the double digits, this film really merits high praise. Serry manages to tell an engrossing and subtly complex coming-of-age story that involves not just a high school girl and her family, but two nations as well.

Maryam Armin is a typical American teenager with typical teen problems. Except that she's Iranian, with an overprotective father who won't let her answer phone calls from boys, much less date them. And in 1979, with Jimmy Carter in the White House and the Ayatollah Khomeini at the forefront of an Iranian revolution, students have stormed the American embassy in Iran and taken dozens of hostages to protest the United States' giving shelter and medical treatment to the deposed Shah. America responds with tough talk, and anti-Iranian protests swirl into the family's world with the suddenness of a sandstorm. Complicating matters is cousin Ali, a Muslim fundamentalist who travels from Iran to live with them after losing his parents. Everywhere there are "unity rallies" and yellow ribbons tied around trees and buildings, and a cruel anti-Middle Eastern backlash which should sound familiar to anyone paying attention to the Americans' emotional response to 9-11. Maryam's family is suddenly shunned by good friends and falls victim to graffiti on their car and a brick thrown through their front window. But while Serry wanted to draw attention to an watershed event for Iranian-Americans that he felt was being forgotten, by focusing on Maryam and her relationships with family members he manages to avoid the easy didacticism and polemics of a "statement" film based only on politics. As a result, the "Maryam"'s political message becomes a more powerful reminder of human nature and humanity's ability to rise above the negatives.

"Mary" (Mariam Parris), as she prefers to be called, has been able to wear jeans and shed her Iranian name. But she can't shake her new cousin-chaperone (David Ackeri), whom she has to shuttle around in a car her father, Dr. Armin (Shaun Toub), bought for her on the condition that she take him to college. But Ali arrives with plenty of baggage: the religious fervor of a new convert to Islam, and a feeling that Maryam's father was responsible for his own father's death at the hands of the Shah's secret police. He was only an impressionable child when his father was killed, but his story is enough to disturb Maryam, in part because her own father had never mentioned the incident. Throughout the course of the action, Maryam learns of other versions of the same story, but the family's dark secret threatens to rock their world as much as the hostage crisis unsettles America.

"Maryam" resonates with humanity and complexity, partly because of Serry's intelligent script, and partly because he manages a quiet but credible tension from beginning to end. World struggles are counterbalanced by day-to-day dramas that will seem familiar to many families. Maryam's mother, Homa (Shohreh Aghdashloo), for example, subverts her strict husband's bans by helping her daughter get around them. And neighbors who were best friends but now hide from the Iranians next door feel nonetheless embarrassed to be dragged into the patriotic anti-Iranian backlash. Coping issues like those lay the groundwork for character development, and there's plenty of it in "Maryam." The fully Americanized Maryam first sees weirdness in her fundamentalist cousin. But as a would-be rebellious teen she's intrigued by his open defiance of her father (as a gift, he gives her father the backgammon board still stained from his father's blood the day he died). She begins to think of him as a kindred spirit, and tries to introduce him into her world. Ali, meanwhile, hopes to make her a part of his Muslim world, and tries to show her pictures of the Ayatollah and explain some of the teachings.

Because Serry sought to make an accurate document of the era, there are shots of gas lines, big-car vs. small-car debates, and, of course, that anthropological wonder, '70s Man-complete with unbuttoned pointy-collar shirts and gold chains. Reza (Maziyar Jobrani)is a friend of Maryam's family who attends the same college as Ali, but couldn't be more politically opposite. Politics? He don't need no stinking politics. All '70s Man cares about is scoring, and he hangs around a group of Marxist students because he has the hots for their leader, Leila (Goli Samii). Also not the brightest bulb in the Disco light, he arranges for a friend to sell Ali a handgun. The Shah is undergoing cancer treatment at a nearby hospital, and Ali, hoping to use Dr. Armin's I.D., has both the motive and the method to kill the Shah. By the film's end, each of the characters with opportunity for growth have, in fact, made the leap. Dr. Armin and the neighbors act in ways that brings them redemption, while Ali discovers a version of the family tragedy that enables him to live with a clearer head and lighter heart. The mostly all-Iranian cast does a phenomenal job of selling the story, but Mariam Parris is nothing short of a presence as the quintessential brooding but sensuous teenager. As she dies of embarrassment when her father pulls her out of school and her catty chief rival for high school TV news anchor also becomes a rival for the boy she likes, Maryam reminds us of those elements of humanity that unite us.

Serry includes plenty of newsreel footage of the greater conflict in order to ground the film in history, and even used a device called a "veritron" to apply a '70s look and feel to the rest of the film. The transfer is decent, with presentation in 1.85:1 ratio enhanced for 16:9 screens. There are occasional flecks of dirt on the print (this was, after all, a low-budget, independent film) and some graininess, but most of the time the picture and colors are sharp.

There are three audio tracks: English Dolby Stereo 2.0, English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, and a commentary track featuring director Ramin Serry and producer Shauna Lyon. The surround sound is like the film itself: low-key and unobtrusive, which is to say that the rear-speaker effects are quietly ambient. Two-channel Dolby spreads the sound evenly across the speakers. No problems here.

You wouldn't expect a small, independent film to offer a commentary track, but people who like "Maryam" will be glad that Serry and Lyon included one here. There are plenty of insights for film buffs, starting with the pair's comments on what it takes to distribute and market a small film all by themselves, and what they learned in the process. But there's also no shortage of specific film-related tidbits. Mariam Parris is Iranian-British and normally speaks with an accent, we're told. The fellow who plays Ali, with his thick Iranian accent, is an Iranian-American born in Wisconsin who normally speaks with no accent. And the woman who plays Maryam's mother, Shohreh Aghdashloo, is a scholar as well as one of Iran's most recognized actresses. The actress who plays the blonde, All-American-looking high schooler is half-Indian, wer'e told, and the father of the actress who plays Marxist leader Leila was in real life a best friend of the Shah of Iran. Just after opening footage of the Iranian revolution and the Ayatollah the title sequence begins to the background music of The Cars' "Let the Good Times Roll," which Serry and Lyon remind us was current in 1979. So was a song that Serry really liked, "American Girl," by Tom Petty. In fact, Serry says that the working title for the film was originally "American Girl," but that somewhere along the line they realized that it just wasn't right. Again, like the film itself, the commentary is fairly low-key, but Serry and Lyon always have something worthwhile to say. Rounding out the extras are a very, very short behind-the-scenes featurette, the original trailer, a list of cast credits, weblinks, and other Wellspring and affiliates' previews.

Bottom Line:
This movie is a real gem, and it deserves a wide audience. Aside from a single act of bloodshed, there's nothing in this unrated film that would keep parents of junior high and high school children from watching it together. It's the kind of movie that may even get parents and children talking to each other. "Maryam" offers that rare chance to see the world through the eyes of another culture, and the view it affords of Iranian-American families during the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis provides plenty of opportunities to talk about current Middle-Eastern affairs and U.S. policies . . . and the problems common to all families, regardless of heritage.


Film Value