“I’m not really a political activist,” Maryam Keshavarz says. “I’m an artist at heart.” Maybe, but the 35-year-old Iranian-American director effectively combines the two passions in the bold, sensuous new drama Circumstance, which opens in theaters August 26. The director’s first narrative feature is set in contemporary Tehran. It focuses on two teenage girls, Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri), a privileged daughter of a liberal family, and the orphaned Shireen (Sarah Kazemy), who must face the consequences of their burgeoning love for each other. Yet far from being another dour tale of doomed romance, Circumstance crackles with energy as it exposes a rarely seen secret world full of defiant young people who experiment with drugs and sex at illicit parties.
After receiving her undergraduate degree at Northwestern University, Keshavarz began making experimental films “out of anger,” she says, and as a response to 9/11. She applied to New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and received a scholarship to study there. Perhaps the anger has subsided, because the most surprising aspect of Keshavarz is the sly humor she injects into both her new film and the conversation in general. Raised predominantly in the U.S., Keshavarz jokes that she developed a really great jump shot and three-pointers she describes as “killer” due to growing up in a family with seven basketball-playing brothers. As a girl she made frequent summer trips from America to Iran, where she remembers being captivated by the vivid stories she heard from female friends and relatives who would sneak out of their homes at night to attend underground parties. The young people would often put themselves at risk in search of a few moments of liberation and self-expression.
However, Keshavarz insists the film is not strictly based on herself or her friends. “I always knew that I wanted to make a film about youth culture and focus on two girls,” says the filmmaker, who identifies as bisexual. “I’m fascinated by people who are similar to me yet who are extreme opposites from myself — and evaluating those differences.”
Obviously, filming such provocative material in the Middle East requires creative strategic planning, and Keshavarz realized early on that Circumstance could not be shot in Iran. The filmmakers selected Beirut, Lebanon, as an appropriate substitute for Tehran, but as a precaution, Keshavarz peppered her crew with other LGBT people as well as several straight women.
[Watch an exclusive clip from Circumstance below.]
“We were very specific in choosing our crew,” she recalls. “We couldn’t choose just anyone. It was a very difficult shoot in terms of both scope and putting ourselves at risk because of the content, although Lebanon is an extremely liberal country. It’s considered the gay mecca of the Middle East, but it’s still illegal to be gay.” Keshavarz says she didn’t feel comfortable even telling anyone what the film was about until she considered the person an ally.
Overall, Keshavarz found filming in Lebanon a positive experience, but there were some obstacles. “It’s a beautiful country and the people are incredible, but we definitely had some issues with authorities,” she says. “We submitted a censored version of the script to their censorship board and it was approved. We still had issues with people from the government coming to the set of the film wanting to know about the film. Word had gotten out that there was queer content. It was quite difficult at times.”
The covert operation paid off, and the film has already garnered high praise at numerous festivals, even taking home the coveted Sundance Audience Award last January. Keshavarz fully recognizes her film’s groundbreaking nature as well as its potential impact.
“There haven’t been many images of gay or bisexual Muslims or people from the Middle East at all,” she says. “We showed the film in Toronto and San Francisco and other cities and queer people came out to see it. It was really quite touching.”
Keshavarz says that while her immediate family in the States has seen the film, her relatives in Iran won’t have the opportunity since Circumstance can’t be shown in the Middle East.
“My family in Iran is not even aware of it,” she says, but her mother’s reaction was perhaps indicative of what her distant relatives might think. “My mom was upset and crying. She said I was putting myself at risk and should let someone else do this. It was hard for her, but my family knows I’ve never followed the rules. I come from a long line of very, very strong women.”
Still, Keshavarz prefers that people see her film for its entertainment value, rather than some agenda they think she’s pushing. “Ultimately, my job is to be a storyteller,” she says. “This isn’t a propaganda piece.”