American-Iranian director Maryam Keshavarz is a woman who doesn’t fear courting controversy – a fact very much apparent in her first feature, Circumstance (2011), which claimed the Sundance Audience Award back in 2011. The film follows two wild-spirited teenage girls living in Iran (Sarah Kazemy and Nikohl Boosheri) who, tired of the rules and religious oppression of their society, delve into the underground subculture of the country’s night-life.
When CineVue met with Keshavarz recently, we started discussing why she felt the need to make this controversial drama: “I was doing my MFA at NYU and TISH in directing. We had this class where we had to write a feature from a personal place. I grew up between Iran and the US and I wanted to draw on my experiences as a teenager of navigating the underground party world I saw with my cousins.” From this foundation, Keshavarz wanted to explore “what it meant to be a young woman in a world that is so conservative” and “how people find ways to express themselves.”
Keshavarz is fascinated by the idea of how liberal minded family full of music and art operate in a conservative environment, a factor that creates the central tension within Circumstance. Once again drawing on past experiences, she stated: “I always wondered how it was like for [my uncle] and what was it like if you are liberal, having a family in a culture where you know where the state doesn’t hold the same values. The father in my film is creating a liberal environment of art, music and freethinking and what he instils in his daughter is a rebelliousness and free spirit. But how can she live in that world?”
Keshavarz was aware that she would never be able to make her film in Iran – opting instead for neighbouring Lebanon. “I had never really been to Lebanon. It’s a much smaller country [than Iran], but there was this feeling, we look alike and there are cultural similarities. The way I approached it was to get a sense of people’s politics, and eventually I would tell them exactly what the project was about.” Keshavarz also faced difficulties with the authorities – who at one point thought she was making a gay porn film – and the 35mm film stock, which had to be carried across to Jordan before being flown back to LA for processing.
Addressing Circumstance’s central lesbian romance, Keshavarz clarifies: “At the heart of it is the dynamic between these two girls and the sexual element, which is something not easily discussed or seen on the screen. For me, it’s a film about sexuality, and I didn’t want to stop by just making a film about heterosexuality. The spectrum of sexuality for women is different, especially in countries where the sexes are divided.” Importantly, Keshavarz didn’t see herself as a moral crusader, yet understood the need for a level of lightness to the film. “I wanted to talk about the serious elements of what is happening with gay rights and politics in the Middle East, but there is also a playfulness to the film. We don’t efface who we are as humans because you are somehow part of a political movement.”
Keshavarz is now unable to return to Iran, although Circumstance is available on the popular Iranian black market. As we wrapped up the interview, she admitted, “I have heard through the grapevine what the reaction is – there is a lot of outrage. What I love about Iran is that there is always a lot of outrage, yet they’ll still watch the movie.”
Maryam Keshavarz’s Circumstance will screen at ICA London from 24 August. For more info and to book tickets, visit ica.org.uk.