26 May 2011 – With Circumstance, Iranian-American director Maryam Keshavarz delves where no President of Iran suggests there’s reason to go: Into a love affair between two Iranian women. Her first feature film, Circumstance is making its Canadian debut at Inside Out after winning the audience award at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.
UPDATE 26 Sep 2011 – Circumstance is set to open on Fri, Oct 7 in Toronto and Mon, Nov 14 in Vancouver. Other Canadian cities will follow. Check your listings for showtimes and places.
The daughter of Iranian immigrants who were recruited to the US as doctors in the 1960s, Keshavarz’s interests have always lied in issues surrounding Iran. Initially an academic focusing on Middle Eastern Studies, Keshavarz stumbled upon filmmaking after the media’s portrayal of Middle Eastern people after 9/11 infuriated her. As a reaction to that, she made a collection of experimental films with some friends and ended up using them to apply to film school. She got in (on a scholarship, no less), and shifted from academia to film – but her focus remained on Iran.
That’s evident with Circumstance, which follows two young women, Shireen and Atafeh (played by Sarah Kazemy and Vancouver’s Nikohi Boosheri) who begin a secret love affair amidst the dangerous social underground of Tehran. Clearly not headed for a typical girl-meets-girl narrative, the film takes audiences in powerful directions that lay bare the struggles facing queer Iranian.
Xtra: What did you want to say with this film?
Keshavarz: I always knew I wanted to do something about young people in Iran as a first film. As a teenager going to Iran with my cousins and navigating the underground, I was always sort of in awe of the women there and how incredibly brave they were. They found ways to break the rules and express themselves. So the characters of Atafeh and Shireen were always percolating in my mind… I always knew it was going to be from the perspective of these young girls. And an important part of young girls’ development is their sexuality. I really wanted to explore this, but I always had issues of self-censorship. Even when I wrote the script, I was afraid. Most of my family still lives in Iran and there’s very few films that are done about sexuality there. And definitely not films about women’s sexuality, and even more so not about queer sexuality. But I just figured if I’m going to do this, I just need to go all the way. So it was about getting at something more truthful and more raw, and that was scary.
Xtra: Has your family seen the film? If so, how did they react?
They don’t know about the film yet. They’ve heard about it, but I’ve tried to protect them by not letting them know specifics. The greatest protection in Iran is for people to not know.
Xtra: What about your family living in America?
Keshavarz: I grew up in America, and my parents are quite religiously conservative. They’re Muslim. And my mom came to Sundance for the premiere of the film and I kept saying ‘no, Mom, you don’t need to come.’ But my mom is a very strong woman and she’s always been very supportive of me doing anything I want. She’s always wanted me to be very independent, even though I don’t think like her. And we had this amazing standing ovation at Sundance, which was incredible. But I go up to my mom after the screening and ask her what she thought. “You do this to hurt me,” she said. And that was hard. It’s like, you can change the world but it’s hard to change you’re family.
Xtra: What was it like shooting this film in the Middle East? You shot in Lebanon, right?
Keshavarz: Well there’s only like two places in the Middle East where being gay is not illegal, one is Turkey and one is Israel. But Lebanon looks and smells so much like Iran and I really wanted to shoot there. But they have a censorship board, so you have to submit your script to get permits. So we submitted a script after being told to take out anything pertaining to sexuality or religion. So a 110 page script became 60 pages for approval. But the thing about making a film like this is that you really need to bring people on board who believe in what the film is about, and to know who to trust. I went to Lebanon a few months before shooting and showed a few people I trusted the script, and asked, you know, ‘how can we make this?’ And even though this is not a script about their country, many people in Lebanon related to the script so decided to work on the film It’s a testament to the people who believe in the project, and were willing to risk themselves to make it.
Xtra: What do want the relatively privileged audiences in Toronto to take from Circumstance?
Keshavarz: That’s a difficult question. I think audiences react very differently to the film and to me that’s amazing. My intention doesn’t matter… It’s about how people read it based on their own experiences and background. To me that’s very interesting. But I hope that the variation of people’s desires to express themselves in the film – both in terms of sexuality and in terms of freedom of speech, and in simply expressing themselves – will really speak to a queer audience. They understand that struggle.