When Sexuality and Cultures Collide

An Interview with Circumstance Director Maryam Keshavarz

Iranian filmmaker Maryam Keshavarz has received critical accolades for her feature debut Circumstance, “a swirling and sensuous melodrama of forbidden love in modern Tehran,” according to The New York Times. Circumstance explores the erotic relationship between two schoolgirls, Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri) and Shireen (Sarah Kazemy) and how Iran’s repressive political culture affects the country’s increasingly Westernized youth.

What was your inspiration to create Circumstance?

I spent my life as a young woman going to the underground parties with my cousins who live in Iran. I grew up mostly in the U.S., I grew up in New York, actually. I was always taught to follow the rules; I come from a strong immigrant family. Then I would go back home to my family in Iran and all of my cousins, everything they were doing was illegal. They were like, 15, 16; we’re going to go to these parties, and I’m like, “Isn’t that illegal?” And they’re like, “Yeah, that’s why it’s fun!” And women especially were always pushing the boundaries. I was in awe of the women in Iran. That was the first impetus.

And my parents, they came here in 1968. A lot of my family was studying here. And then the revolution happened in 1979 and everyone was coming here, and some of my family went back to Iran to live in Iran. They were very idealistic. They thought it was going to be a democracy…that’s kind of the impetus for the parents of our main character. The father is Berkeley-educated, very liberal, and for me it’s always been interesting, the idea of how liberal people create sanctuaries in repressive environments. I’m interested in how fragile those sanctuaries are. That was a big inspiration for the film.

Music seemed to play a vital part in the film, adding a lot of cultural richness, and what was your process in selecting the music in this film?

Music is a character in the film and actually I met Gingger Shankar, who is the composer, at the Sundance composers lab. We really hit it off. She does traditional music, but she also does a lot of world music (she did the music for The Passion of the Christ). So we related to each other a lot as people who like hip hop music as much as classical music.

She wrote a couple of cues that became the basis of the score that we wrote two years before we ever shot the film. We started to write while I was still writing the film. We would get ideas for themes, like this character would be more like this, or this is the central theme of the film. And then we were talking about how classical music, would mix with classical music with hip hop, but not American hip hop, Persian hip hop influenced by Western ideas. There’s kind of this clash of music.

We joked that in the beginning, the film is like a musical. Like everyone’s singing, there’s joy, there’s life, there’s underground parties, and as the brother becomes more repressive, the music becomes so minimal. When there is music, it becomes a couple of notes. Then nothing. Towards the end of the movie when they want to sing, Atefeh’s brother doesn’t allow it. And so we don’t hear anything until the end, in which there is the only time that we hear a song by a female hip hop artist. They’ve always been male before that. Music was never separate from the film. It was always a huge part of the writing process.

A large portion of the scenes were shot by surveillance cameras. What inspired you to use this technique?

The idea is that at the beginning of the film, the state is watching the girls. It’s a police state. The surveillance is just that. It’s cold, like you don’t know who is watching, we just have a feeling it’s everywhere in the city, yet the girls are not perturbed; they’re used to it on some level. They just live their lives. But I wanted to show that when that police state enters the home, through those home cameras, that’s when the family starts to break. Repression enters the home and becomes unbearable.

What other filmmakers that have influenced your style?

Lots of filmmakers have influenced my style. I love Christiane Martel from Argentina. I’ve always loved Christiane Martel’s perspective. Or Lynne Ramsey. Besides their writing process, the image quality of where the camera goes, I’m just so fascinated by them. I’m influenced by both Americans, and by world cinema, I grew up with film and going to the movies was such an escape. Writing was also an escape. In New York, you don’t need tickets to see the second half of shows. So I would always end up seeing the second half of Broadway shows. It’s like, no one can control your mind, they can’t control your imagination. And that ends up being a big theme in the movie, like the repressive state might exist, but the fantasies of the girls are still so sexual and so vibrant. It’s way beyond what happens in their lives.

One of the characters in the movie, Atafeh, blames her father for the way life turned out after the Iranian revolution. Can you speak a little bit on that?

You hear that all the time, with young people in Iran. “It’s their fault, it’s their fault; now we have to deal with it.” What I’m trying to get at there is that the father is clearly liberal, reminiscing about days that were very free on some level. Shireen’s parents were clearly leftist. The revolution started on idealistic terms, as most revolutions do. But of course the aftermath of the revolution is that Iran became a theocracy, which is obviously not what was intended. There’s an anger that the people who started the revolution didn’t have the foresight and the strength to continue and create the utopia they promised.

Ninety-nine point nine percent of people in America think it was an Islamic revolution started by religious fanatics, and that’s not what happened. It was much more of a student movement, young, leftist, pro-democratic. And then later on it changed. But regardless there is a feeling that there were more social freedoms before; that the people wanted more and they ended up getting less.

There’s one scene involving the morality police, showing several characters circulating censored materials. Did you film any portions of Circumstance on location or run into any trouble?

Everything’s shot in Lebanon. Lebanon is really liberal; in many ways it is the gay Mecca of the Middle East. There are gay clubs, gay bars. But it’s different when you’re making a film and there’s queer content. We had issues with the military, with the government. But more than anything, we had an amazing team that really believed in the film and kept their cool. And we all knew that if anything happened, if we shot in film and if that film was confiscated, it would be over. So I picked a team that was very specific, that could handle stress. And we all came together. The crew was from everywhere in the world, from Argentina, from the U.S., from France, Lebanon, from Iran, from everywhere. So it was kind of a testament to people everywhere believing in this film, believing in the story. You hope it’ll get the reaction that you want. These are all things that you hope, but you never know when there’s the threat of getting arrested.

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