• News

In ‘Circumstance,’ teens challenge Iranian norms

Jonathan Curiel, Special to The Chronicle Thursday, September 1, 2011 Filmmaker Maryam Keshavarz’s name is instantly recognizable as Iranian. Her accent? Totally New York-New Jersey, where Keshavarz was born and raised. Keshavarz, though, would often return to Iran – she attended school there in the second grade, and also went there for graduate school – so her formative years were split between a country in the midst of religious rule and one that gave her the freedom to be whatever she wanted. This dual experience ultimately fueled the themes that anchor “Circumstance,” her drama about two 16-year-old girls who test the limits of Iran’s social norms. In public, the girls, Atafeh and Shireen, behave one way. In private, they attend parties full of drugs and wild music, and they orchestrate quiet moments of sexual exploration – often with each other. Iran’s underground youth scene takes center stage in “Circumstance,” but so do the dynamics of family life where some parents help their children avoid scrutiny from authorities. Keshavarz’s debut feature, Audience Award winner at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, opens Friday in Bay Area theaters. “When you grow up in America, you’re always taught that there’s right and wrong – and to never lie – and that these are the rules and you follow them,” says Keshavarz, who’s 35. “Most of my family lives in Iran, and they would teach their kids to lie, to protect them. Because, especially during the Iran-Iraq war (from 1980 to 1988), government authorities would ask kids, ‘Do your parents pray?’ ‘Do they have alcohol in the house?’ Kids were inadvertently turning their parents in. Teaching them to lie became somewhat a part of Iranian culture. We called it ‘two faced.’ You have something at home and something in public. This idea of always hiding something that you are – it’s drastic in Iran, like life and death. That’s the central theme in the film – these layers of duality.” Ambiguous sexual identity Keshavarz, who also wrote the screenplay for “Circumstance,” based much of the characters’ lives on people she knew or knew about. Though early reviewers have described the teen girls (played by newcomers Nikohl Boosheri and Sarah Kazemy) as lesbians, Keshavarz says their sexual identity is more ambiguous. Experimenting is something Keshavarz has done, saying, “I had a 10-year relationship with a woman, and I’m in a relationship with a man now,” then noting that Iran has instituted legal punishments for gays and lesbians. In 2007, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told a U.S. audience that, “In Iran we don’t have homosexuals like in your country.” The difference in how the countries accept non-straight behavior is crystallized in “Circumstance.” The film’s title refers to the way that conditions – not free will – often determine people’s lives. “It’s a coming-of-age story where Atafeh and Shireen are finding out who they are – but unfortunately circumstances are pushing them into a certain direction,” Keshavarz says. Marked for life “Sexuality and life decisions are so much molded by circumstances (in Iran). And that always kind of blew my mind. If you make a mistake in the States – OK, your parents ground you. You make a similar mistake in Iran and you’re marked for life. You’re going to have it on your record. You could go to jail. It could ruin your life. Literally one party, one event, one sexual encounter, whatever it is, could change whoever you are.” Keshavarz almost got in trouble while making the movie in Lebanon. The Lebanese military visited the set after getting a tip that Keshavarz was doing a pornographic movie. She and her crew convinced the military that nothing like that was happening, and that their footage shouldn’t be confiscated. Even to get permission to film in Lebanon, which has close relations with Iran, Keshavarz lied to Lebanese authorities. She submitted a phony script that whitewashed all the racy material from “Circumstance.” Surreptitiousness Keshavarz looks back at the surreptitiousness and laughs a little. So does Reza Sixo Safai, the actor who portrays Atafeh’s brother Mehran, a character that becomes increasingly religious and obsessed with Shireen. Safai, 38, was born in Iran and grew up mainly in Palo Alto. “It’s a dream,” he says, “to be able to dive into something like this and to work with someone like Maryam, who’s really collaborative.” Condemned in Iran This collaboration was made easier because Safai, Boosheri, Kazemy and Keshavarz all have family roots in Iran. Making “Circumstance” was a chance to dramatize the lives of young, rebellious Iranians there – people who will see the film surreptitiously, likely through black-market DVDs. Iranian authorities condemned “Circumstance” soon after its Sundance honor, Keshavarz says, but the condemnation helped bring even more attention to the movie, which is opening theatrically around the United States and – later this year – throughout Europe. Circumstance (not rated) opens Friday at Bay Area theaters. To see a trailer, go to www.takepart.com/circumstance. http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2011/09/01/PKJD1KRF6A.DTL#ixzz1WkVCqiH5