TMC Interviews director of Iranian film Circumstance on making a film about lesbians in a country where they officially don’t exist
SHOWING FRIDAY 24 AUGUST at the ICA
Maryam Keshavarz’ debut feature-length film, Circumstance, follows two girls, Atafah and Shireen, as they defiantly navigate the unseen world of Iranian youth culture and explore a burgeoning desire for one another. Winner of the Sundance Audience Award, Circumstance’s bravery and originality sets it apart from those coming-of-age narratives that we are oh-so-used to.
Although the film speaks for itself, the fact that it is banned from Iran, as is Mayryam, is a testament to how daring its representation of women is within the rigorously repressive environment of Iran. I spoke to Maryam about the production of Circumstance, the implications of making such a film, and what was personally at stake…
Maryam, can you tell us a bit about your background, and how you got into filmmaking?
I was doing a PhD in comparative literature and Middle Eastern Studies and was on sabbatical in Berkely when I made my first film. It was an experimental film called “Sanctuary”, and it was a response to 9/11 and the frustration I felt at the media representations of people from the Middle East as these kind of monolithic terrorists. I used the film to apply to go to NYU, and it won me a full scholarship to go do an MFA at Tisch School of the Arts.
How was Circumstance conceived?
Circumstance was actually part of a class at NYU, where we looked at how personal experience could inform fiction work without necessarily being autobiographical. I grew up between Iran and the US, and the idea of these two girls navigating the underground party world was somewhat based on my experience with my cousin going to these sort of parties. The idea of a liberal family within a repressive environment is based on my uncle who lived in Massachusetts and was going to university when the Iranian Revolution happened in 1979. As many Iranians were coming to the West, he actually went back to Iran to take part in the student protests and ended up getting stuck in Iran.
What are the implications of depicting a lesbian relationship within an Islamic/ Muslim context?
This is a really difficult thing within the culture that I come from and not even just lesbian relationships, but addressing women’s sexuality in general is something that’s extremely difficult to do in Islamic culture. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said in a speech to Columbia University that homosexuality doesn’t exist in Iran, of course that’s the most ridiculous thing, of course it exists, it’s just taboo.
I purposefully shot Circumstance in Beirut because it’s relatively more liberal than Iran, but we still had to jump through a lot of hoops to be able to shoot in Lebanon. We had to send in a script to censorship and I tried to keep it under the radar that there were aspects of sexuality and an exploration of a queer relationship within the film. We ran into problems, but the crew was made up of so many people, from so many countries, who all believed in the project and believed in protecting it as much as possible, and this was really inspiring to me.
As your feature length debut, what was your aesthetic and stylistic vision for the film?
I worked very closely with my cinematographer, Brian Rigney Hubbard, talking extensively about how image can help tell the story. If you look at the film, in the beginning there are a lot of open-air shots with very fluid camera moves and a lot of wide shots, creating a sense of calm and sanctuary. But, as the brother becomes a repressive element and the State begin to enter the home, when the sanctuary becomes compromised, the film becomes much more dark, the frame becomes crowded, we go from lots of dolly moves to lots of hand held camera work. There is a sense of anxiety that the world is closing in and it’s getting darker.
As Circumstance was shot in Beirut (but set in Tehran), and your leading actors are members of the Iranian diaspora, some Iranian viewers have criticized Circumstance for lacking authenticity. What would you say to this?
I think what’s interesting about Circumstance is that it’s an inside-out perspective. I’m someone who lived both in the US and Iran. I feel close to Iranian culture, I lived there, I speak the language, most of my family live in Iran. Yet, I feel somewhat outside of it. So I definitely have a unique view on Iran. I think that it’s only really someone who has a little bit of distance, as well as the safety of shooting in another place like Beirut and using actors that are in the diaspora, that can allow for the exploration of issues that are very taboo; issues of women’s sexuality, issues of queerness. It was very important to me that I make the film in a certain way; that I really look at women’s sexuality unabashedly, that I really look at desire and intimacy. I couldn’t do that if I was shooting in Iran, within those limitations.
How has the film been received in Iran? And what repercussions has this had on your own life?
I’ve gotten thousands of emails and letters, from all over the world, a lot of them from Iran, Iranians having seen the film through illegal download or DVDs being brought into Iran. Some saying how important it was to make the film, how they were touched, thanking me so much for telling their stories. Others saying how much they hate it and that it’s not authentic, outraged that I would show two women within an Islamic context kissing and touching each other, or being attracted to each other.
Some people have had issues with the idea of, “you don’t represent the country in a positive light, you don’t represent all Iranians”, and you know, of course not, this is just one story, of one particular family, and I only try to represent the reality of this particular family and these particular characters; by no means would I want a film to represent an entire nation, that’s an impossibility.
It’s been very difficult with my family in Iran and I knew when making Circumstance that I wouldn’t be able to go back, but still I felt compelled, so it just had to be done.
Circumstance is on selected release in the UK: showing at ICA tonight 24th August
DVDs available 24th September from Amazon