Persian-American director Maryam Keshavarz’s debut feature Circumstance explores the danger and excitement of youth’s rebellion in contemporary Iran. The film centers around two friends, Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri) and Shireen (Sarah Kazemy), who struggle to overcome both cultural constraints and complicated familial problems. Because of, or in spite of their oppressive environment they find and explore a sexual attraction. While the film’s buzz in some part is owed to this relationship and has earned it the title of the LGBT film to watch of 2011, it goes deeper and further than that. It’s not about girl on girl action—it’s about being true to yourself– no matter the circumstance.
This is your first film, but you have some experience acting in stage productions – was it a challenge for you getting used to performing in front of the camera?
Nikohl: â€¨â€¨I had taken film classes so I wasn’t completely unprepared, but I don’t think any amount of training can really prepare you for being on a real life set. I had always been comfortable on the stage. The camera intimidated me, and I had avoided it until this point. I do believe though that when you really want something, when you feel completely passionate about something, fear is a secondary emotion. I had too big a job to do to let fear get in my way, and it definitely helped to have such a supporting cast and crew. It was Sarah’s first time on camera, as well, so we carried each other and I think that shows in the film. I couldn’t have done it without her.
I know when you initially auditioned you were only given one scene to read—what was your first impression when you finally read the full script for Circumstance?
Nikohl: There were a lot of hints in that little scene. When you audition for something you usually have maybe one or two scenes. It is your job to come up with a backstory with what is available to you. There were a lot of little hints in that scene but I was definitely still surprised. I never imagined someone would have the guts to tell that story. Haha.
Was this your first experience acting? What were you doing before you were cast? What was the process of auditioning for the film like?
Sarah: Yes, it was my first. I was studying law before auditioning but I was contemplating arts. The process of auditioning was a long process—a lot of back and forth until I finally got the call. I knew when I first met Maryam [Keshavarz] that I had a shot. We had so much in common—we both were raised in a Western country but are very close to our cultural traditions of our country and we both had travelled to Iran each summer…
The film is unique because it’s a coming-of-age story that addresses the consequences of trying to find oneself within a country that prohibits a lot of personal freedom, particularly for women. Do you see this as a feminist film or something that extends beyond women to all of society?
Nikohl: No, I can’t say I really see this as a feminist film. It speaks to so my different people, in my opinion. Everyone is a victim of their circumstance in this story. This isn’t a feminist film or a lesbian film, as so many people are quick to brand it. It’s a film about people, family, and their relationships with each other and with themselves.
Sarah: It is about freedom regardless of gender. It is about finding yourself and being true to yourself no matter if you are a men, a women, a heterosexual or homosexual.
Given that the film addresses issues like sexuality, drug use, and censorship—did you anticipate that the film would be banned in Iran? Was that something that you (or your families) were worried about?
Nikohl: Yes, of course, I knew. You get five pages in the script and you know that there’s no way that this film would ever be shown in Iran. I had never been to Iran so it wasn’t necessarily an immediate worry, and my family had not been back since they left. The unfortunate thing was that once I began my research I had this intense need to see my homeland, but I knew that was no longer an option.
Sarah: Yes, indeed. When I read the script I knew firsthand that the movie would never be tolerated, let alone be seen in Iran. During that time the Green Revolution [aka Twitter Revolution] took place. At the beginning I had hard time talking about this project around [my mom] (my mum is French-Algerian), and, especially to my dad, who still has strong ties there. He was and still is concerned about the government reactions. Since I knew how difficult it would be to visit Iran after making the movie, I went there one month before shooting. Although I knew it was risky, I really wanted to be part of this story.
What do you think are some of the misconceptions that people in the West have about young people in Iran?
Nikohl: HAH. A million and one. We put together an opinion by stringing together images from the media and maybe a few things we learned in history class. I had my own misconceptions. Iran just seemed terribly uncool to me growing up because my parents had tried so hard to stuff the culture down my throat. That’s why I think people respond the way they do to the film. It’s refreshing and probably a relief to see that the young people there are so much like us. It’s inspiring that they continue to fight for freedom and creativity and to have an identity under such repression.
And, of course, a BULLETT interview wouldn’t be complete without a tie-in to our on-stands-now Cosmic Issue.
As a child, what was your understanding of the universe?
Nikohl: I think I was a bit of a contradiction as a child—I still may be, actually. I was always rambunctious and mischievous, but I feel I had a sad inner life as a child. I remember looking in the mirror and imagining how big the universe was and then imagine it all ending. I would give myself panic attacks. Quite morbid for a five year old. Haha.â€¨â€¨
Sarah: I always felt that the universe was bigger than me, and that I could have an impact. I used read a lot as a kid. I would make up stories and tell them to anyone who would listen and try to convince [them] that it really happened…
Do you believe there is life outside this universe?
Nikohl: I think it would be naïve and ignorant not to. It doesn’t have to be life defined in our terms though.
Sarah: I believe there is life inside this universe so I’m trying to stay focused on living to the fullest in this one.
If you could travel through time, where would you go? Who must you talk to?
Nikohl: I would love to go back to 1975 Iran, when Googoosh and rock and roll reigned and my mom wore platform shoes and blue eye make-up. I’d love to go hear some of their stories.â€¨â€¨
Sarah: I would revisit my life, on the eve of my death, and I would ask myself what did or didn’t do to impact the world. I would wonder what could I have done differently.
Do you put any stock into any of the prediction of the end of days?
Nikohl: That’s one of those things that I like to ignore and pretend does not exist. 2012? What?â€¨
Sarah: Not really, I try as much as I can to follow my heart. I take life as it is…