Two young actresses make screen debuts in Maryam Keshavarz's heated ‘Circumstance.’

Iranian Teenage Love Sparks ‘Circumstance’

Susan Gerhard September 10, 2011

Director, producer speak of challenges, inspirations behind a story of the urban Iranian underground.

Two teenage girls fall into intoxicated love and meet inevitable trouble in an unlikely setting, Iran's highly unpublicized club world, where the familiar sight of illicit drugs and bared flesh might have made even Larry Clark's KIDS feel at home. American indie feature Circumstance is a film about liberating impulses within repressive environments, and it’s perhaps appropriate that it’s opening in 25 cities nationwide on the anniversary of the tragedy of September 11. Its director, Maryam Keshavarz, was following a course into an academic life when 2001’s newly virulent anger at people of Middle Eastern descent charged her with the desire to make media that would speak to the masses. The message is being received, clearly: Circumstance, an early recipient of an SFFS/KRF filmmaking grant, won the Sundance Film Festival’s Audience Award in 2011, was picked up by high-profile Participant Media and is making headlines wherever it goes. SF360 spoke by phone with Keshavarz, surviving a Los Angeles heat wave just days before delivering a baby, and by email with producer Karin Chien.

SF360: Maryam, can you compare the kind of busy you are right now with the kind of busy you were before the film was finished, and/or when you were in school?

Maryam Keshavarz: It’s been a whirlwind. It’s a different sort of busy. In school, I did the feature doc, The Color of Love and The Day I Died. School affords you the space to think and try to understand the kind of filmmaker you want to be; you get to watch a lot of films and be inspired before you endeavor.

By now, I’ve done a nine-month press tour, promoting the film. It begins to roll it in Europe in October. It’s been exciting, because now it’s the end of the process. This is a fun part of the process; but it almost seems separate; the end is when you finish the film. This is all just fun to talk about your work. But in a way you’re more detached from it. So much is in the making of it. Not necessarily in the exhibition of it. It’s an added bonus.

SF360: Karin, can you offer a few key moments, a timeline, for the production of 'Circumstance?'

Karin Chien: In 2007, Maryam participated in the Sundance Screenwriters & Filmmakers Lab, where she met two of her key creative collaborators, cinematographer Brian Rigney Hubbard and composer Gingger Shankar. They started prepping the film then, years before we started shooting.

In Fall 2008, producer Melissa Lee came on board, and I joined shortly thereafter. We arrived at the project through different sources, but we were both drawn in by the story. It was right around when Obama was elected. I remember this incredible sense of change and empowerment in the air.

In June 2009, during the post-presidential elections that rocked Iran, we decided to fast-track the shoot. The Green Wave was followed by an intense government clampdown in Iran. We were worried our window to make this film was closing. And we wanted to do our part by telling a story about Iranian teens, thousands of whom were killed or disappeared in the protests.

In March 2010, Maryam and editor Andrea Chignoli were cutting the film in Santiago, Chile when an 8.8 earthquake hit the city. They managed to get on one of the first flights out, and flew straight to LA, where we finished editing a few weeks later.

In January, 2011, the film premiered to a standing ovation at the Sundance Film Festival. In 12 hours, an Iranian paper issued a critique of our film. In 48 hours, Participant Media made its first acquisition ever and took North American rights, while Ad Vitam took French rights. This is the moment we stopped raising money for the film. The next day, January 25, the Egyptian Revolution began. Four days later, January 29, Circumstance won the U.S. Dramatic Audience Award. Thirteen days later, February 11, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak dissolved his government.

Shortly after Sundance, Participant brought on Roadside Attractions to distribute Circumstance in the U.S. We bowed theatrically on August 26 in New York and L.A. The next day, August 27, Hurricane Irene hit New York and all three N.Y. theaters shut down on our opening weekend. Our Canadian actors had flown to New York for the opening, and they spent the weekend holed up inside an apartment, waiting out the storm. We opened in 25 more cities on September 9. Circumstance opens in Canada and the Netherlands in October, in France in December and in Australia and New Zealand in early 2012. In some ways, the journey is just beginning.

SF360: Maryam, this film explores those themes you've looked at in your work, particularly The Color of Love, described as looking at ‘attempts to uncover how ideas of love, romance, marriage and sex have evolved in a society where politics and culture are inextricably linked.’ Can you talk about that documentary, your studies, and their relation to your original idea with this script?

Keshavarz: I’ve always focused on the Middle East in my academic work, both as an undergraduate and in my doctoral studies. I was doing academic work when September 11 happened. Because of the anti-Middle Eastern sentiment, I thought it was reminiscent of the hostage crisis. My brother and I were both angry. He convinced me to go into media. He thought academia detached us from reality.

I’ve continuing to work on what we’ve done with the Middle East, just in a different form. My focus was comparative literature before. My first project at NYU was supposed to be 8 minutes, but it became a feature.

It was the next film I made that hit the festival circuit. The Day I Died was shot in Argentina and won the Teddy Award at Berlin. It’s a love triangle between a brother and sister who are in love with the same girl. If you put those two together, you have Circumstance. I’ve always explored the tension between brother and sister. I come from a big family. Those familial dramas have always been interesting to me—putting that in a political context.

I have seven brothers and each of my parents have nine siblings. Trying to sit around the Thanksgiving Day table is pretty hard.

SF360: This film is a very strong first feature, and feels very much of an American indie mold rather than one influenced by Iranian film. I know it was supported by Sundance, as well as SFFS. What were your greatest influences?

Keshavarz: Sundance Tribeca, Film Independent. I actually have been influenced by Iranian cinema, but not in the way of wanting to create that visual style. When I was in college, they brought Alissa Simon brought series to Art Institute of Chicago. It was the first time I was sitting in the audience where they were seeing images of Iran. I’m a consumer of international cinema. I love Bergman, Martel, Wong Kar-Wai, Egoyan. They’re all so different from me.

The director of photography and I looked a lot at paintings and photography. We were influenced by different media than just film. What connected with DP and I was this idea that how you shoot the film, blocking, color, composition of the frame—wide, crowded—the evolution of the visual look should reflect the evolution of the narrative.

In beginning, the family is connected. It’s light and airy, and we use wide shots, dolly shots. The home is warm. The exterior is monochromatic, browns. The only source of color are the girls. The headscarves are blue or rose colored. As the film progresses the frame becomes more crowded, darker, more handheld. Because the brother’s imposition, his repression is starting to create a tension and disruption in the family. The visuals pull you into that.

It’s a great juxtaposition between fantasy and reality. The Fantasy is the fantasy of young girls. The inability of the state to control these girls’ minds. We wanted to have a break. When you see the fantasy world, it’s well lit and there are no men. In the fantasy world of their sexuality, we have wide shots. It’s very sexy. They’re nude, or wearing beautiful dresses. When you come to reality of what they’re doing sexually, it’s very hesitant. The camera is very close. They’re more free in their minds. The visuals clue us in to these ideas.

SF360: I read that in order to get access to location, you needed to obfuscate the storyline a bit.... Karin, what was the most difficult part of creating this film, from a producer's point of view?

Chien: Beirut, where we filmed, is an incredibly dynamic place, bursting with style and creative energy. Yet the film industry still operates under a censorship system, homosexuality is still illegal and it's still politically fractious and confusing for outsiders. We were careful to frame our film as an American production. We arrived in Beirut with letters from NYU, certifying this was a student production (Circumstance is Maryam's thesis film). We coached our North American and European crew and cast on how much to say, and what not to say, about the film. We distributed the full script only to key Lebanese crew and cast. Even with all this precaution, I believe the government, the military, the police, Hezbollah were still aware of what we were filming.

SF360: How difficult was this film to make?

Chien: This is a fully subtitled film spoken in Farsi, performed by an unknown cast, shot somewhat undercover in Lebanon by a first-time writer/director, with a powder keg of storylines. Every independent film is a miracle, but this film is miracle upon miracle.

SF360: Maryam, was this your first experience directing actors? Were they veterans or newcomers? Naturals?

Keshavarz: Shireen, she’s never ever acted, never auditioned. It was her first read. She was a law student in Paris. Nikohl had done plays, trained in theater. She was just a year or two out of high school [in university]. This was her first film audition. Both of the women are of Iranian descent. Nicole had emigrated to Canada at six months. Her first time on an airplane as an adult was to come to the audition. Her second time was to fly to Beirut to film. She was a kid, afraid to fly. She came with her mom. She was afraid, but she takes these very daring roles. 2,000 people auditioned for the three lead roles.

SF360: Will the film be playing in the Middle East? How has the reception been in Iran or by Iranians elsewhere?

Keshavarz: It’s unfortunately been the issue we have. We can’t show in any country in the Middle East. It can show in Turkey. Isreal. It can’t show in Jordan, Lebanan. It can’t show at festivals in Qatar or Dubai. Because they’d have to censor it, which I’m not willing to do. It can’t go to Iran. But the second it gets released on DVD it will be pirated. Every day I get dozens of emails from Iran, people looking for download.

It’s about kids in the Middle East and they can’t see it. It speaks very much to the youth movement in the Middle East.

Or the fact that it’s rated R. I went to a high school in Seattle and talked to kids about the film. A lot of them were freshman and sophomores. That was the day I found out it was going to be rated R. At festivals, it’s not rated. I had 10 comp tickets I was going to give to friends and family, but handed out in that class, because I knew they couldn’t see it in the cinema.

The crazy thing is that film is about teenagers, but they can’t technically see it. You can’t say f&%$ twice, but you can kill 50 people…..