Hometown: New York City.
Why She’s On Our Radar: Because in a great year at Sundance, her feature narrative directorial debut “Circumstance” beat out a crop of impressive films (including “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” “Another Earth,” “Take Shelter” and “Pariah”) to win the coveted Audience Award. The drama, about two best girl friends in Tehran who struggle to keep their romantic desires for each other at bay in fear of the repercussions, was picked up by Roadside Attractions out of the festival. It hits select theaters this Friday, August 26.
More About Her: Keshavarz, who grew up living in the U.S. and Iran, majored in Comparative Literature and Women’s Studies at Northwestern University. After a year away as a visiting student at the University of Shiraz, Keshavarz returned to pursue Near Eastern studies at the University of Michigan. A year later, the 9/11 attacks occurred. In response to the media’s response, she made a black-and-white experimental short film, “Sanctuary.” The film won her a fellowship to pursue an MFA in Film Direction at NYU/Tisch. There, she directed her first feature documentary, “The Color of Love,” a portrait of the changing landscape of the politics in Iran. Her next project, the visual essay “The Day I Died,” won two awards at Berlinale and the Jury Prize at the Rio International Film Fest. “Circumstance” was born out of the 2007 Sundance Screenwriters and Directors Lab and had its world premiere in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the festival earlier this year.
Given that you spent most of your life hopping between Iran and the U.S., what inspired you to tell a story from the perspective of two women lively solely in Iran?
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Probably, part of it is inspiration. In both countries I feel like an insider and an outsider. I have cousins who are exactly the same age as me who live there. I’m just amazed at how brave the women are and how they push the boundaries. I mean, sure, all teenagers do that, but here they don’t have the risk of going to jail for years or being lashed. It can ruin the rest of your life there. But people do it, because there’s an impulse to be in control of your own lives. To me, that’s inspiring.
In a way there’s a not a lot of choice there, but people push the boundaries to have that choice. Here you have people with so much choice and they’re debilitated by it. People don’t know what to choose. When you have that restriction, you have to understand and fight for what you believe in.
What kind of research did you do prior to taking this on? How much of your own experience did you incorporate into the script?
During the war, I lived my 2nd grade in Iran and after college I spent a year-and-a-half in Iran.Through my first documentary, I learned a lot more about the Iran underground scene. I’m definitely the geeky American, who goes, “Come on guys, let’s change the world.” I was totally naive. When I would I go, I was just amazed by the total debauchery I saw at these parties every year.
I incorporated my experience as a woman in Iran, but when I was doing research it was like another level of that. It’s a mix of documentary research and my own experience and that of family members.
The father in the film is Berkeley educated. A lot of my family was educated here in the States. I have an uncle who the father was based on.
What strikes me is that in America you’re taught never lie, lying is bad. Whereas in Iran, that can’t be the case. What you do at home can never be divulged to the public. There’s this saying that you have to lie to be truthful. It kind of creates a split personality in many ways. Some people handle it better than others.
That’s very personal to me. I’ve had friends who’s reaction to it has to become drug addicts or become part of the system. It’s the only way they feel empowered. I’ve been fascinated to bring all those elements into one domestic space.
Did you create the lesbian storyline to explicitly lay out the ‘forbidden’ nature of Iranian culture?
No, I mean on some level it elucidates the themes more clearly. Honestly, though, the characters always had a fondness for each other, they always had that sort of relationship. In some ways, it was always there but I had self-censored myself in the earlier drafts about how far that relationship would go.
But I think their relationship more than anything is about love, another type of love that can’t happen in Iran. It’s the best example we can have, because it really can never be in the public space.
I didn’t want it to be the overarching thing about it. They’re not arrested because they’re gay in the film. They’re arrested because they’re dubbing a film. It’s just a part of everyday life. The love is the overarching story, not the fact that they’re gay.
It also kind of shows the tolerance of the parents. You have a sense that the parents know that’s something’s going on. I like that play. It’s the father that’s trying to keep them together.
At Sundance, the cast in a Q&A, spoke of the risk they took in taking on this project and how their families are being targeted back home due to their participation. How’s it been for you?
Everyone knows about the film now. I think 12 hours after the film premiered, there was a statement against me in one of the national papers. They’ve been somewhat tracking us. I’ve gotten threats since then, anonymous ones. Love them!
The thing is, for someone like me, and some of the actors, we used to go back and forth frequently to Iran. So for us, making the film was in a sense, a loss. Because we know that we can never go back to Iran. In a way this is a reason we’ve done this film. This is something we’re so passionate about, that we’re willing to sacrifice that. It was really hard.
I kind of broke down at the end of shooting, not because it was over but because I couldn’t go back. It had sunk in.
In terms of my family, I tried not tell my family in Iran anything about the film. A lot of them, I’m not even contact with them because I want to protect them.
Of course, when the film comes out in Europe, it will be different. I’ve tried as much as I can to protect them. But unfortunately, I can’t change my name or my presence.
Now you initially didn’t set out to be a filmmaker, right?
Actually, as a joke in college, all my friend would go, “You’re so damn bossy, you should be a director.” I had a lot of acting friends.
But seriously, I was doing my doctorate at the University of Michigan and I just happened to be taking a sabbatical at Berkeley and that fall was when 9/11 happened. Most of the family here in the States worked near the World Trade Center and I couldn’t get in touch with anyone.
There was nothing to do. So a friend of mine and I shot a short after the week of 9/11. It was purely just an expression of my anger. We didn’t even know what happened and already they were targeting Middle Eastern people. I had a horrible feeling about what would come. So I made this film in reaction to that.
My brother, who was applying to film school, suggested I go into film. Academia is great, but it doesn’t affect people on the wide scale.
“Circumstance” marks your first feature narrative film. Do you see yourself going back to documentary filmmaking any time soon?
I don’t know. I think I’m leaning more towards narrative work. I guess I love control (laughs). I’m also a writer, so you have a lot more freedom in that respect. But I work with things that are based on historical facts.
Do you want to branch out and do something that’s no so politically conscious?
I don’t necessarily want to only direct things related to Iran. I love films no matter what the genre is. I’m getting tons of scripts. I’m not interested in films that are just on one level. It doesn’t have to be politics, but it has be dealing with multiple levels in psychology, social issues or something. To me that’s what so amazing about cinema. You can deal with things of multiple levels. That’s the power of the visual form.