Circumstance concerns two teenage Iranian girls, Atafeh and Shireen, who are forced to pursue their taboo attraction beneath the watchful eyes of a repressive government and a militant brother who is determined to tear them apart. Cinedelphia recently sat down with Iranian-American writer/director Maryam Keshavarz to chat about her experiences with the Sundance Film Labs, the search for a suitable Iranian-like shooting location, and her personal relationships with the film’s characters.
CINEDELPHIA: How did your participation in the Sundance Film Labs lead to the creation of your film?
MARYAM KESHAVARZ: Well, I went to NYU for my Masters and in my second year I made a short film that went to Berlin where it won the Gold Teddy and Jury Awards. After that, I had a script that was nothing like what you saw on the screen, but that was the first draft of Circumstance and that was going to be my thesis film. I went to Tribeca All Access with that script and I met Sterlin Harjo, a Native American filmmaker who’s made three films, his first two are Sundance. I told him about the script and he said that I really needed to apply to Sundance Labs. So he recommended my script and they interviewed me and I got into the writer’s lab in 2007. It was amazing, you don’t actually write in the writer’s lab, it’s a week long and you get six mentors, two mentors a day, and they read your script and it’s basically a discussion. So half the day is mentorship, half the day is artistic exchange with the other fellows. In the writer’s lab there are between ten and twelve and in the director’s lab there’s six to eight. So half the day you work on your scripts, it’s an extensive conversation, and the other half of the day you have great dinners and wine and you hang out and play in the snow because it’s in the winter. It’s a great, amazing environment and it’s very different from film school because, y’know, film school is very competitive and this is like a family. And there’s a live reading of your script also, you get actors, it’s just an amazing experience. It just cracks open your mind.
So I’d done that and I started working on rewrites, I’d actually begun doing location scouting so I was in Morocco when I found out that I was a finalist for the director’s lab and I did my interview on the phone in Morocco. From the writer’s lab I’ve had so many mentors who continued to give me feedback. I asked my mentor Andrea Berloff, she wrote World Trade Center, “hey, can you read my new draft?” And she said she’d read it tonight and then I did a rewrite and submitted that as my application [for the director’s lab]. So I got in, which was a huge honor, and that was five weeks long with the first week being exercises and acting classes with amazing mentors. The next five weeks you shoot the most difficult scenes of your film and they pay for everything, they cast it…all mentors in every department change every week so you have a directing mentor, editing mentor, acting mentor…you have people like the guy who wrote JFK or Atom Egoyan or Catherine Hardwicke, all these great people. Imagine working with the most competent people in the world and nothing ever went wrong and you’re only allowed to work until six.
C: How did the film evolve from that point to where you began production in Lebanon?
MK: I knew I wouldn’t be able to shoot in Iran and I was looking all over for a place. Atom Egoyan’s wife was Lebanese and he said he’d been there twice. It’s very funny how we only see certain images of Lebanon. In America we only see Lebanon as war-torn and Iran shows Lebanon as war-torn, it’s a political thing, the government wants to show that Israel oppresses Lebanon so they only show the poor parts. I had a friend in Beirut who I went to film school with who was moving to Dubai in two weeks so I literally got on a plane two days later and went to Lebanon and I was shocked even from the moment the plane landed. It’s like a mini-Iran, Lebanon is only four million people, Iran is like 60 or 70 million, but it was amazing. So that got me excited. When you find the space to shoot your film things slowly fall into place. I auditioned 2000 people for the girls, a lot of people.
C: How long did that take?
MK: About eight months to a year.
C: And were they all Iranian actresses?
MK: Well, no, they had to have two passports because they couldn’t live in Iran since the film was very controversial, they’d be in deep shit. I had a grant from Rotterdam Film Festival to do casting and I was physically in cities all around the world and the rest was done with Skype. It was incredible.
C: Did everyone that auditioned speak Persian?
MK: When they were cast they had close accents to what it should be, but it wasn’t perfect. It took another year to get financing, it was a very difficult film to finance, so the actresses went through one year of intensive dialogue training to perfect their accents. I think that accent really embodies culture and environment even though probably as an American you can’t see it, but you feel it.
C: Just like an American wouldn’t necessarily see that Lebanon wasn’t actually Iran.
MK: Yeah, but y’know, if you see a film where someone is from New York and they have a Texas accent it’s a little weird. You may not know it necessarily as a foreigner, but you feel it, I think.
C: Americans have had limited exposure to Iranian cinema outside of Kiarostami or Makhmalbaf…
MK: There’s lots of kids in the woods, right? There are some filmmakers who deal with urban environments…
C: There was that No One Knows About Persian Cats film…
MK: Right. And Crimson Gold. There are a few examples, but not ones that usually come to the states.
C: So your film is rather valuable in that regard since viewers are provided a glimpse of this urban culture.
MK: Right, and I was able to shot it because I made it outside of the. If an Iran-based filmmaker wanted to make this film it would be done differently. And I very much worked against that, there’s censorship in Iran and I had self-censorship. My family lives in Iran and I was scared for them, the psychology the society projects on the individual, you feel like there’s things you can’t write or shouldn’t write so it takes a lot to strip away the pretense and make it raw, which is what I wanted to do.
C: Will the film ever screen in Iran?
MK: No, never. I did a feature documentary that wasn’t shown in Iran, but it was shown on BBC so it came through via satellite. The day that this film shows up in theaters here it will be available on illegal DVD in Iran, that’s how it works, just like in the movie. I remember when Brokeback Mountain came out, it was super popular in Iran, which to me was very shocking. “It’s about people who aren’t allowed to express themselves and forbidden love, that’s our life” “Really? You people like gay cowboys, huh? Cool?” Iranians are very well-versed in cinema, they watch a lot of bootlegs and a lot of satellite.
C: I felt that certain aspects of the film were over-the-top, not that they were unconvincing, but I took things like the brother spying on his own family as more of a metaphor than a literal translation of oppression…is it really that bad?
MK: It’s both. It can be both symbolic and literal. Thematically for me it was about how within oppressive environments people create utopias, sanctuaries, but how those things are very much vulnerable to the state. So I wanted to capture that within the context of one particular family, but unfortunately it’s not an unusual story. It’s somewhat based on people I’ve known, in the Iranian context there’ve been quite a few people who’ve identified with the film. But no film represents a country or a society at large. For me, it represents this family and in a way it’s the ultimate tragedy because it’s a family that’s so close, but so vulnerable. And that’s a testament to true repression, it truly affects the interaction of family members or people on an intimate level. That’s really what I’m evaluating, repression on intimate attractions, and to me that’s the most insidious repression.
C: So a lot of this film is first-hand experience and not just limited to research.
MK: Definitely. It’s based on my family members, me…most of my family lives in Iran and all of the characters are loosely based on people I’ve known and experiences I’ve had.
C: So in that case, how many years has this script been in your head?
MK: That’s a really good question. It’s interesting because I relate to so many aspects of the film even as someone who doesn’t live in Iran. I grew up going back and forth, my parents had two passports. I spent every summer in Iran, but there are aspects of these girls escaping their environment through fantasy that I relate to as someone who grew up in a very religious family in America. Fantasy isn’t something that can be controlled by anyone, the mind is an escape. I really identified with that as a young girl having grown up in a very conservative family. So I think I always try to write different aspects of the way I am, it’s a multitude of experiences that go into writing anything.
I identify with all of the characters, including the brother. There are moments in life when you feel trapped and disempowered and you can see yourself going in a multitude of directions. Your environment and your circumstances will dictate where you go, but I can relate to that feeling of despair for different reasons. I really sympathize with the brother, really feel for him, his desire to be seen within a family where he’s kind of been a disappointment to them.
C: And he makes a radical decision to get that attention. Have you ever had to do anything to that degree?
MK: No, and I think that’s where circumstance dictates which path we take. I identify with that need of a human and the need of a father to get everyone together, all these things that people do because they want to create safety and protect their family even if it means compromising who they are. To take certain experiences and reevaluate context, I think that’s interesting.
C: Is your family at all representative of the one in the film?
MK: Family dynamics are incredibly important to me. I have seven brothers including a twin brother, each of my parents have nine siblings, I come from a humongous family and a lot of them live in Iran. They go from extremely left to extremely right wing… all of these politics come out at the dinner table at my grandparents’ house and as a child you aren’t conscious of the greater politics, but you are conscious of the politics within your family and you question “why is this person treated this way” or “why is there silence around this person’s addiction?”
The thing that unites my family is that they’re all educated, regardless of their economic background. So Shireen even though she’s of a lower economic class she’s just as educated as Atafeh in the film. In post-revolutionary Iran there’s more of a push for the lower classes to be educated.
C: The viewer is never told why Shireen’s parents are absent.
MK: It’s alluded to that her parents were writers and political dissidents, but she’s an outsider, even at school she’s being chastised as if she doesn’t belong. To me that’s interesting because here she is with a black mark on her because of her parents’ background and when she goes to jail she has to answer not only for her own crimes, but for her parents’ crimes as well. And again, this is a huge issue of circumstance, if she had a wealthy uncle who could bail her out…This is amazing from an outsider perspective. In America, let’s say you steal a car as a teenager, you go to juvie for six months, it’s not going to necessarily affect the rest of your life, it probably doesn’t usually. But in Iran it can affect the rest of your life. You go to one underground party, you have bad luck and get arrested, it could effect the rest of your life and it definitely affects our character. She’s forced to either marry the brother or go to jail. So, circumstance.
Circumstance opens at the Ritz at the Bourse on Friday.