Maryam Keshavarz is an unwaveringly determined and passionate Iranian-American filmmaker. She has to be, because she’s created a film that defies expectations of her culture and has instantly created controversy. Every step of the film’s development has been fraught with complications, but Keshavarz and her team have persevered. Keshavarz’s film, Circumstance, takes place in modern-day Tehran, Iran, where a puritanical Islamic theocracy remains in power. The film boldly tackles this system by depicting a story of two young women discovering themselves and an underground rebellion of youth culture, one that includes drugs, sex, dancing, Western music, and banned films. Experimenting with this culture is enough of a risk for them already, but the two young women also fall in love with each other. This is so much more dangerous than just eliciting their parents disapproval; homosexuality is a punishable offense in Iran. Literally every possible freedom for them is under threat by their society, but the women decide to test their limits anyway.
The film is in Farsi with English subtitles. The director explains in an interview with the New York Times that she wanted it to be as authentic to Iran as possible. She also recognizes that while the film will never be shown in Iran, pirated copies are bound to be smuggled into the country anyway. She definitely wants Iranian youth to be able to experience her film in their Farsi language, and is anxious to see what the response will be. This film is also authentic to the director because some of it comes from her own observations. Keshavarz grew up in Brooklyn, Staten Island, and New Jersey, but she spent her summers in Shiraz, Iran, with her cousins. Although she doesn’t live in Iran, she certainly has more of a personal understanding of the culture than an American filmmaker would.
While filming, Keshavarz and her team had their own set of difficult circumstances to work around. Of course they couldn’t film in Iran, so they chose Beirut, Lebanon, instead. While this was safer, they were still not without pressure from the authorities. Whenever they were questioned about the film they would lie about its content. Keshavarz explains that they had to produce a script for the Lebanese officials, and that the original script was more symbolic and subtle. Keshavarz explains, in an interview for the Wall Street Journal blog, how as she developed the script she was afraid to go too far, “because a lot of my family lives in Iran and I didn’t want to jeopardize going back.” But then she realized that she had to go all out, to make the film as honest as possible. Keshavarz goes on to explain,“But as I started writing more truthfully and the characters became more real as opposed to symbols, I really started to strip away my self-censorship, and I realized that if I was going to make the film, I had to make it as truthfully as possible, and once I got that in the script, I would never be able to return to Iran.” This is one of many reasons that this is such an important film. I've never heard of a director risking and giving up that much in order for her film to be produced.
I haven’t seen this film yet, but after hearing the story of its journey I can't wait to! I really admire Keshavarz for not giving a damn about what people think of her film, as long as they're thinking about it. And of course what they went through to make this film was nothing compared to what many Iranians face on a daily basis. Keshavarz says in her New York Times interview that one of the core messages of her film is that “the struggle of any family in that kind of repressive atmosphere, where both the family and the individual are always under siege, is to create a safe space and sanctuary.” Keshavarz goes on to explain that, “To me that is what this film is evaluating. It celebrates love, but a love that is tragic, because on every level every kind of love is under assault and ultimately compromised.” Most likely this is not going to be a feel good, escapist, happy ending sort of film. That much is clear from the realistic aspects of the story. However, it is definitely a film that will get people thinking and feeling for the characters. I love it when films can plant seeds of social change. I wish there were more mainstream films like that. This movie could leave people feeling passionately about an issue they may or may not have considered deeply before.
Circumstance was released last Friday in a few theaters in NYC and Los Angeles, but will have a wider release in select theaters nationwide on September 9.