Director Maryam Keshavarz’s first dramatic feature is “Circumstance.’’ (Roadside Attractions)
Filming around Iran’s challenges
Maryam Keshavarz had been traveling to Iran for as long as she could remember, but it took Iran coming to the United States for her to understand what stories she had to tell.
Keshavarz was a student majoring in comparative literature and women’s studies at Northwestern University in the 1990s when the Art Institute of Chicago put together a program of Iranian films, bringing filmmakers over to introduce their movies. Cutting class and smuggling sandwiches into the theater, Keshavarz took it all in - not just the films themselves, but the engaged responses of the audiences as well. “I spent my whole life going back and forth,’’ she says. “There were not many images that were leaving Iran, and coming to the States. Here I was sitting in a theater, and half the theater was Americans. They were understanding the culture where I’m from, and it was exciting.’’
Keshavarz went on to study film at New York University, directing a handful of short films and the 2004 documentary “The Color of Love.’’ Her debut dramatic feature, “Circumstance’’ (opening in the Boston area on Friday), reflects the 36-year-old filmmaker’s own peripatetic childhood, being half-Iranian and half-Western in its construction. In its interest in middle-class life, the film owes something to the work of celebrated filmmakers like Jafar Panahi and Dariush Mehrjui, but its political content, and its sexual explicitness, render it a film apart from the Iranian mainstream. In it, Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri) and Shireen (Sarah Kazemy), rebellious teenage girls, one from a privileged background and one from a working-class family, find an unexpected kind of love, prompting the intense jealousy of Mehran (Reza Sixo Safai), Atafeh’s newly religious older brother. The sense of rebellion is familiar from the director’s own adolescence. Though she was raised in New York and New Jersey, she spent her summers with relatives in Iran, where, she says, “I would always [ask] my cousins, ‘Isn’t this illegal? Are we going to get in trouble?’ And they’d always say, ‘Yeah, that’s why we’re doing it.’ ’’
Given the film’s potentially inflammatory subject matter, shooting in Iran was out of the question, as was casting Iranians. After searching the Middle East for a suitable substitute, Keshavarz settled on Beirut, on a tip from filmmaker Atom Egoyan and his wife, Lebanese-born actress Arsinée Khanjian. “It was striking how much it looked like Iran,’’ says Keshavarz. “It had also been destroyed in the ’80s, and we joked that it was rebuilt by the same architect.’’
Casting was also a challenge, with Keshavarz lugging around a lengthy list of requirements for her two lead roles. For political reasons, the actresses had to be part of the Iranian diaspora, rather than living in Iran itself. “They don’t cover their hair in my film. There’s nudity in my film, there’s sex scenes in my film. They would be in deep, deep trouble.’’ But that was only the first part of Keshavarz’s laundry list. “You had to have two nationalities. You had to speak perfect Persian. You had to be over 18 but look under 18. And, oh yeah, they had to be good actors!’’ After auditioning more than 1,000 young women, Keshavarz ended up settling on Kazemy, then a student of international law in Paris, and Boosheri, who lived in a small town outside Vancouver and had not been on an airplane since infancy. Keshavarz brought Kazemy and Boosheri together to audition in Toronto, and proved her hunch about them correct. “They met in the lobby of the hotel in Toronto, and they instantly had this spark. They became best friends right away,’’ says Keshavarz.
“Circumstance’’ is inspired in part by Keshavarz’s own extended family, including her uncle, who had studied in Massachusetts and returned to Iran during the revolution. “How does someone so liberal, who went to university in the States, try to raise a family in a very repressive environment?’’ Keshavarz wonders. The film withholds any sense of the theocratic state at first, immersing viewers in the cultured world of Atafeh and her family only to brutally snatch it away. “You wouldn’t feel the destruction of a beautiful, close-knit family unless we built a sense of the sanctuary that the parents had tried very hard to build emotionally and psychologically in their children,’’ says Keshavarz.
Armed with a grant from the Sundance Directors Lab, Keshavarz and cinematographer Brian Rigney Hubbard spent a year working on the film’s visual language, contrasting the lush fantasy sequences, with the young lovers in a smoky, women-only nightclub, and the willfully drab exteriors of the mullahs’ Iran. “In the beginning, it’s open and light, [with] lots of dolly moves and wide shots. As the brother starts to surveil the family, it gets very dark and claustrophobic and hand-held.’’ “Circumstance’’ also juxtaposes the vibrant colors of the two girls’ clothes with the monochromatic streets of Tehran. “The only colors that we’re afforded in the streets are the girls’ headscarves, and what they’re wearing.’’
Keshavarz visited Iran shortly before the beginning of the “Circumstance’’ shoot, but given the subject matter of her film, and the crackdown on artists, which has swept up filmmakers like Panahi (now serving six years in prison and banned from making films for the next two decades), she is loath to return in the near future. “Oh, I can go back,’’ she says with a bitter laugh. “I just can’t leave.’’
Saul Austerlitz can be reached at email@example.com.