Here’s a piece I wrote for this summer’s Human Right Campaign Magazine Equality on the film. You can tell from the piece how impressive a film it is. It is a change making film because it tells the most common story about two people in love and throws on a multitude of complex layers including a repressive political environment in such a profound and bold way.
Here’s the beginning of my piece: 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. Read the full piece here.
I was able to have a long conversation several months ago with Maryam and here is an edited version of our conversation. Be warned there are spoilers about the film in the interview.
Women and Hollywood: What inspired you to write this film?
Maryam Keshavarz: Part of it is based on my own experiences because I went back and forth between NY and Shiraz. Some of my first memories as a young child was taking part in the revolution and later on with the war and extreme repression.
WaH: Specify which war.
MK: The Iran-Iraq war. Going to Iran I was considered an American, the enemy. And coming back here as an Iranian in NY I was always demonized. Basically as an outsider I saw the development of the country. I have a cousin who is one day a part in age from me, and so I went back to Iran and spent a lot of time with her and she was a reflection of me in Iran.
You would see how people started to create this whole underground world and how that world became more and more debacherous as the years went on and people became more and more daring. And for me I am like the Hossein character, very geeky like an American kid compared to these sophisticated kids in Iran who know how to break the rules and are not afraid of anything. I was amazed at how much that they would navigate the system to fulfill their own wishes and desires.
And women especially are more susceptible to being harassed and they were incredibly brave and were kind of my inspiration. They inspired my imagination for many years. I went into film because of 9/11 because I decided that media would be a more powerful tool for me. Just being in awe of these people who were risking that much. Coming back to the states I had the opposite problem in a lot of ways. We have so many choices that a lot of times people are debilitated by the number of choices. There you have so few choices and if you really want to be true to who you are you have to fight for it.
WaH: Why did you choose the story of two young women discovering their own sexuality?
MK: The film deals layers of what is forbidden. Iran is a society of dualities, it’s what you see on the streets which is government sanctioned; but it’s not the reality of people’s lives. Then you see what goes on in the people’s private sanctuaries, what they really think, what they really desire and there is this idea that people lie to be truthful. There are layers of what we are actually living that’s not sanctioned by the state. The girl’s relationship is the supreme articulation of the forbidden and what actually happens in Iran that nobody talks about.
When I wrote the story it was always about these girls and it was always about their intimate relationship. In the first drafts, the relationship wasn’t completely articulated because I had a lot of issues of self-censorship.
WaH: They are very young so you don’t know where they will end up.
MK: Exactly, it’s so much about a sense of freedom and a sense of love and I think it’s about first love. First love is so strong and it has no boundaries and it’s so intense you don’t try to qualify or quantify it and they definitely don’t.
WaH: Their love is supposed to be a safe place where they can be who they are and it becomes more and more of a prison as the brother is spying on them. Explain why you chose to have him watch his family.
MK: There are different layers of watching. In the beginning of the film they are being watched by someone and that someone is anonymous and not very threatening. People in Iran have always found a way to live their lives, but that sort of repression and surveillance is no longer tolerable when it comes into very intimate space.
WaH: I want to talk about Milk and your use of that film because it was so fascinating and really smart. Why did you use that movie as an example of the potential for revolution that those kids want to have in their life?
MK: For a few different reasons. First of all when I was first writing the film I ran into someone who had used Ghandi as a way of showing the ability of the peace movement to create change. And I thought well that’s interesting because in Iran, Ghandi has actually been co-opted by the government. They show Ghandi on TV and they say this is like our struggle against the king. So the idea was figuring out who could they not co-opt, and one person they couldn’t co-opt would be Milk because he was a gay figure and that got me thinking.
Also contrary to what people probably think, the DVD black market is huge in Iran. I was in Iran when Brokeback Mountain came out and it was the hottest black market title.
MK: Because they could relate to forbidden love. It’s what they have to face every day. And Milk was really popular too. They are absurdly in love with Sean Penn. So I thought this is really interesting and that idea that couldn’t be co-opted.
WaH: Can you talk about their relationship and how Shireen was stuck?
MK: I think on some level though they have different backgrounds the characters are running in parallel until one moment – the moment that they get arrested. Although they are idealistic and they think political and social and economic issues don’t matter they really do, and it’s where their lives totally diverge.
In a way Atafeh is much more naive because she is so protected and she has a dad to get her out, whereas Shireen is pragmatic because she has to be. She’s grown up in a pragmatic situation. Her parents were political writers who were killed. She’s living with an uncle she doesn’t really like, a grandmother who doesn’t have a lot of power and they don’t have a lot of money. She has to survive. She loves Atafeh but she also clings onto her because that’s her way of surviving. She can’t be idealistic like Atafeh. She’s going to go to jail. So the next logical step for her is to think I can be with her brother and then still be with Atafeh. In a way Shireen is forced to be the adult and Atafeh continues to be the teenager.
WaH: I found that scene when Atafeh and her father were fighting about the revolution and how no one expected the revolution to become what it did but it’s an interesting moment about how revolutions happen and progress and how it became regressive.
MK: We only see the regressive aspects of it. It was such a leftist student revolt one not unlike what is happening now around the middle east. The thing is you never know how movements are co-opted over time and the dad is practical and once he was very idealistic. He’s clearly very wealthy so he has learned how to work within the system. What she is also saying is you created me as a person who cannot exist in this world. You created me out of the impetus of 1978 and 79 and yet I live in 2010 and I feel suffocated because of the ideas you put in my head.
WaH: What do you want people to learn about Iran from this film?
MK: It’s not an issue film for me. The most touching thing is when people relate to it on a personal and emotional level. I’ve had people from all over the country and the world tell me they relate on some level to the characters relationship. To me that’s the biggest sign of success.
WaH: You said in an interview that you had no choice, that you had to make this movie.
MK: I felt like I needed to tell certain stories from certain perspectives especially after 9/11. The story was a little bit foggy for me because I was afraid. At the Sundance lab they strip away your fears. I wrote so many drafts and the mentors kept reading them. For me, once the voices of the characters were clear and articulated and especially when the script went out to actors we all felt if we don’t make this film we are killing this family. This family felt so real and their desires so tangible and we felt we couldn’t do this to Atafeh and Shireen. We gotta find a way. And we made it for less than we wanted and it came out well but we all had to sacrifice.
WaH: Was it hard finding funding for this?
MK: It was hard because it was going to be shot in Lebanon which was standing in for another country. It is not an easy country to shoot in. The cast is practically all non-actors and it deals with very controversial matters. It had everything against it. A foreign language film and it was so controversial and so hard to get funding from private investors who didn’t think we could do it.
WaH: You got some grants along the way?
MK: I got grants that are typically for documentaries. I make the point because you couldn’t make this as a documentary, people would never talk about this stuff on screen so it’s more real to make it as fiction. Once you have a couple of key sponsors it’s easier to get more. We had some angels and a couple of private investors who really believed in the film.
WaH: Are you Atafeh or Shireen?
MK: As I tell everybody, writers are incredible narcissists — everything is about us. I think all of the characters on some level are a reflection of me or sometimes they might be the exact opposite of me. I never had a relationship with my father. I always dreamed of having a relationship with my dad like that. I saw that with my uncle and his kids. I was always thought about how it would to have that. So it’s kind of like our projections.
WaH: Did you think about your family and if they will have issues in Iran from the film?
MK: Within a day there was an article against me in the Iranian paper and Voice of America, BBC Persia all have had some stories on the film.
WaH: Did it scare your family?
MK: It was hard even deciding to make this film because we (Sara – who plays Shireen) knew that we could never go back to Iran. We had both gone back right before the production. I really cried after the production was over because I knew that sealed my fate. I spent so much of my life there and so much of my family lives in Iran, so I took precautions to protect them, I didn’t tell them anything about the film and fortunately for a lot of my family I just cut off a lot of my connection with them so they wouldn’t get in trouble. They ask, why doesn’t Maryam call us anymore? I just didn’t want any trace of my connection to them which is really hard.