Making an independent film is always tough. But it was even harder for Maryam Keshavarz, the writer and director of Circumstance who had to cut off contact with family members in Iran to protect them from the government which condemned her film sight unseen. The film, set in Tehran, was shot in Lebanon in fear of
endangering the crew. That’s pretty scary business for anyone, let alone a first-time feature filmmaker.
But based on the film’s reception since its world premiere at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, where it received the Audience Award, it was worth it. The film — one of 16 films chosen from 1,102 submissions — tells the story of two teens, joined-at-the-hip, best friends who fall in love. The mainstream appeal of this film will be tested when it is released Aug. 26 by Roadside Attractions.
It was a long, hard road for Keshavarz, 35, who grew up going back and forth between Iran and the United States. she saw Iran go from revolution to repression. While there, she lived it, and when in the US., she escaped it. She saw the growth of the underground world to which people, especially the youth, escaped — to avoid the government tyranny on the streets.
Those people inspired her because they “were risking that much... there you have so few choices, and if you really want to be true to who you are, you have to fight for it,” she told Equality in a recent interview in New York.
That inspiration led Keshavarz to write a film which she fully admits could never have been a documentary “because people would never talk about this stuff on screen.” But she is conflicted about labeling her film. she is uncomfortable with calling it a political film although she is overt in her statement that “the girls’ relationship is the supreme articulation of the forbidden and what actually happens in Iran that nobody talks about.”
The brilliant and subversive nature of this film is in the way Keshavarz uses lesbian issues to frame the story. At its core, the story is about Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri) and Shireen (Sarah Kazemy), falling in love. But it is also so much more. It is about one girl who grows up in privilege and what happens when the rug is pulled out from under her; it is about one girl who grew up with no protectors and what she had to face when confronted with a terrible choice. It’s about a family torn apart when progressive parents raise children who cannot be themselves in their own country. And it’s about hopes and dreams of two girls who want to walk freely through the streets without covering their bodies or being worried about being constantly harassed just for being girls.
Keshavarz is also reluctant to claim the label of “lesbian film” and that might just be a generational issue. Labels have become less important in social justice movements and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights movement is no different, especially for young people, some observers say. But no matter what the filmmaker and marketers do or don’t label it, that won’t stop others from looking at it on a continuum of lesbian films because so few lesbian films get a mainstream release. LGBT historian Jenni Olson explains: “I very much understand the desire to transcend that label.... And yet, in its depiction of two teenage girls grappling with their attraction to one another against the backdrop of an im- possibly homophobic society, it is a lesbian film.”
Circumstance delves even further into the LGBT world when it uses the award-winning film Milk as a touchstone to inspire the youth of Iran. Most foreign films are viewed in Iran through a huge underground DVD market. The Milk scene depicts Atafeh and Shireen, along with two male friends (including one who is clearly questioning his sexuality), recording tracks that would be dubbed onto a DvD of Milk to be sold on the black market. Asked why she chose Milk, Keshavarz said she believed that “a gay character is one the government could not co-opt because gay issues are never discussed publicly.” The government has tried to co-opt Gandhi and even Che Guevara, but Harvey Milk would be too much of a stretch for a government that denies homosexuality even exists. Harvey Milk would be proud.
Circumstance is already a success even before it has been released to the public. Its reception at film festivals across the world clearly indicates that the voice of a new young writer/director has arrived on the scene. While claiming not to be political, Maryam Keshavarz has done the ultimate political act — she has stood up and given voice to the people of Iran through a lesbian story. That takes some serious guts.
Film opens in NY and LA on Friday, August 26th. More info here.