'Circumstance': Sexuality, Youth Culture and Love in Iran

Q&A with director Maryam Keshavarz on the making of her provocative film.
Nikohl Boosheri as Atafeh and Sarah Kazemy as Shireen in CIRCUMSTANCE, directed by Maryam Keshavarz. (Photo: Courtesy of Maryam Keshavarz)
Aug 23, 2011
Jenny Inglee is a Los Angeles-based journalist and the Education Editor at TakePart.

Writing the screenplay for Circumstancea film that strips the layers of Iranian youth culture down to the core—was an emotional and risky experience for Iranian-American filmmaker Maryam Keshavarz. "I was afraid of writing something where I would not be able to go back [to Iran]," she said.

The film, which Maryam also directed, is a provocative coming-of-age story about what happens when a friendship between two Iranian girls turns into a secret passion. It won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival this year and is garnering attention at film festivals across the country.  On August 26, Circumstance will be released in select theaters in New York and Los Angeles, and will expand to other cities September 9.

Recently, Maryam spoke to TakePart about her debut film.

Sarah Kazemy and Nikohl Boosheri on the set of CIRCUMSTANCE, with director Maryam Keshavarz. (Photo courtesy of Brian Rigney Hubbard)

TakePart: The theme of duality plays a major part in Circumstance. Why was this important for you to explore in the story?

Maryam: Iran is a country that is defined by duality. You have to cover your hair and act a certain way that falls within the Islamic framework, but when you come home, you’re not veiled. Outside, you can’t drink and there are all these restrictions, but in your home you’re much more free. People have that duality of who they are in the public and who they are in the private arena. I think the film tries to also delve into who we are with our families while in this underground world. Young people escape to these underground parties as a way to express freedom, and then there is another layer of duality on top of that for these girls [in the film]. Although these underground parties are supposed to be a place for freedom, their sexuality is a hidden layer they can't really express, even in that free environment. I think this whole idea of duality is very much in the Iranian psyche, but it’s also part of the human condition.

TakePart: How was going back and forth to Iran as a child? Did you feel that sense of duality?

Maryam: That’s funny—I guess it's true I am also a product of duality and very much so because I was traveling back and forth between two countries that hated each other. After the revolution, and during the war with Iraq, there were always signs that read "Death to America" because the U.S. was associated with the last regime—they were rejecting that. In my neighborhood in New York, during the hostage crisis, our family faced a lot of racism and a lot of violence from our neighbors, from people we grew up with, which was really shocking. Our humanity was completely effaced and we just became part of this idea of terrorists.

Duality is definitely a part of my life and this helped me to become a translator, kind of translating the culture. In Iran, I’d say, "That’s not the way America is," and in America, I’d say, "That’s not the way Iran is—we’re so similar you don’t realize it."

TakePart: Why did you choose to explore sexuality in Circumstance?

Maryam: The film is not autobiographical, but I am a young woman, so I was in a sense exploring women’s sexuality and girls’ sexuality. Given the great restrictions that artists who live in Iran face, that's not something that is easy to do. A lot of great directors have typically shied away from female characters. They’ll use children or rural environments just because they can’t really treat that in an in-depth way since it’s under scrutiny. Because I knew I was making a film outside of the Iranian system, I had the ability to express something different.

The first kernel of the film idea was always these two girls, and once I was able to get over the issue of self-censorship, I knew that it was interesting to me. It was close to my experience as a woman and it was something that was rarely seen, so it made it even more interesting to delve into how these characters would react, in terms of their life decisions, given their backgrounds.

Sarah Kazemy as Shireen and Nikohl Boosheri as Atafeh in CIRCUMSTANCE. (Photo courtesy of Brian Rigney Hubbard)

TakePart: You auditioned thousands of girls. Why did you cast Nikohl and Sarah?

Maryam: There were many stipulations with being in the film. Although we had a lot of actors who lived in Iran who wanted to be in the film, I just knew this would put them in great danger. We needed someone who was of Iranian descent but who had another passport. Nikohl lives in Canada, and Sarah lives in France. They had to be bilingual, they had to be okay with nudity, they had to be okay with sexuality—queer sexuality—and they had to be good actors too. This film is so predicated on these two girls’ relationship and their connection. It follows their relationship and its demise.

I brought all the finalists for all the major roles—the sister, the best friend, the brother and the dad—to Toronto to audition together. I remember when Nikohl and Sarah met; they met in the lobby and they became instant best friends. It was amazing. They had an instant connection.

TakePart: Did you always want to be a filmmaker?

Maryam: I’ve always loved cinema. For me, it’s always been an escape. I would sneak into films and what-not; it’s just a relief for the imagination. That’s another aspect of the girls in the film—their fantasy and imagination is unbridled, so much more bright and vivid than their reality. For me as a young girl, I grew up in the U.S., I still had very strict parents, and the one thing that they couldn’t contain was my mind. That was always a big thing.

I didn’t always want to be a filmmaker. I was focused on Iran, doing my doctorate work on Iranian history and literature when 9/11 happened. My younger brother was applying to film school and he was like “You should apply.” Honestly, I wasn’t thinking about applying to film school. I was stuck in San Francisco and couldn’t leave because there was no flying for a week or 10 days. So I made some experimental films on 16mm as a way to express myself with some friends. That film with an essay and a short story got me into NYU on a full scholarship. It was kind of a lark. My brother said, “You always talk about wanting to make a difference. Why don’t you actually do it? You study academic storytelling. Why don’t you take part in it?”

TakePart: Were there any filmmakers you loved as a kid?

Maryam: I liked whatever I could see. I would sneak in when the movie already started, or we always used to pay for one movie in the morning, like the first viewing at 11 a.m. or noon, and then sneak into all the movies we wanted to see but were too young to go to.

TakePart: You mentioned your family is strict. How do they feel about the film?

Maryam: My siblings are very supportive. They’re quite liberal. My dad passed away several years ago… At Sundance, we had this amazing standing ovation and were going to the after-party. I was dreading everyone filing out because then I had to walk to this party with my mom and hear what her opinion was. The standing ovation was so emotional, and I said, "What did you think?" She said, "You do this to hurt me." You can change the world, but you can’t change your family. I think we agree to disagree. My mom’s always been supportive. She’s a very strong woman and has always taught me to do what I believe in even if it is contrary to what she believes in.

TakePart: Do you want to go back to Iran? Are you scared to?

Maryam: I'm definitely not going back any time soon. When we wrapped the film, I talked about this with the main actors and said, "You realize what this means, what kind of film it is and especially with your face on the screen." I also talked to their families. You know everyone really believed in the project. The last day of the shoot was really sad. I remember sitting around with the actors and thinking, "Well, we did it now, so we’ll stand by it."

Participant Media—TakePart's parent company—acquired North American rights to 'Circumstance' at the Sundance Film Festival. Roadside Attractions is distributing in the U.S. and Mongrel Media is distributing in Canada.

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