Navigating Both Worlds: An Interview with Maryam Keshavarz on Circumstance
While adapting Alicia Erian’s novel Towelhead for the big screen, Alan Ball considered using the title Nothing is Private. While the idea now sounds like padding, the alternate title would have suited the film well. The lead role, the thirteen-year-old Arab-American Jasira, comes of age sexually under the watch of her repressive father and a predatory neighbor. What should be a personal journey is manipulated by hierarchical males.
Hence, the title would also suit Maryam Keshavarz’s 2011 Sundance Audience Award-winning feature debut, though this writer-director chose “Circumstance.” The title reflects the factors surrounding her two young female leads in Iran, best friends whose love grows into passion. When caught indulging in the secret nightlife of Tehran, the girls are at the mercy of the secret police. The circumstance of each dictates her fate and her measure of freedom.
As characters who remain close, Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri) and Shireen (Sarah Kazemy) contrast and compliment each other. The playful Atafeh, the daughter of an upper-class family, leads Shireen to secret parties. Upon saying a password and entering, they uncover their heads and reveal chic urban wear from under their school outfits. Though attached to her friend, Shireen is wary of the drugs and casual sexuality. Her parents were killed for their political activity, and she now lives with an uncle eager to marry her off. Of the two girls, we worry for her more.
Atafeh shares a home with her brother, Mehran (Reza Sixo Safai), rehabilitating from drug addiction and now a practicing Muslim. His journey is an inverse of his sister’s, and thus, as Keshavarz stated during a recent interview in Philadelphia, Mehran uses religion to reclaim power. As oppressive as he may be, Keshavarz sees him as damaged, which is how Safai read the role. Keshavarz spoke of how politics inspired her to investigate the dual worlds of these Iranian youths: the youth underground and their relaxed home life, in contrast to the State’s watch outside of the home.
I have always focused my work on Iran, even when I was in academics. I was doing my doctorate in near eastern studies, focusing on Iran, when 9-11 happened. I was really upset with the media portrayals of Middle Easterners. At the time, I had just started doing experimental films in San Francisco, while on sabbatical at UC Berkeley. When 9-11 happened, a lot of my family was in New York. I started making these experimental films (in response to 9-11), never thinking I would go to film school. And my brother, who was studying film, thought highly of my work and urged me to apply to New York University’s film school. I was so angry, so I thought, why not? And I applied with my shorts and earned a fellowship to NYU for Master’s work.
I grew up in Iran and the U.S., back and forth. As a kid, my first memories in the U.S. are during the Iranian hostage crisis. I remember my brothers getting beat up, and my family getting targeted. Even our neighbors turned against us. 9-11 was very reminiscent of that era, and this made me want to go into media to focus on Iran. There’s such a disconnect between what we see in media here (about Iran) and what the reality is. And my family goes from Right to Left, so both mindsets were close to me. My uncle went to MIT then went back to work in Iran. He couldn’t come back to the U.S., since he returned during the Revolution and got drafted into the war. So my question was, how would someone like him, who’s so open-minded, survive in today’s Iran? How could he raise his kids there, when he fosters free thought? I always knew I would do something about my perspective of this kind of life, since I would travel from the U.S. to Iran, and navigate those unseen worlds with friends and cousins. So I knew one of my primary characters would be young, in that situation. Circumstance was very personal for me.
What was your family’s situation that you lived in both Iran and the U.S.?
My parents came to the U.S. in the 1960s. When I asked my mother about when we arrived, she says, “We came right before they killed Martin Luther King.”
My situation is very different from other Iranians, who came to the U.S. from 1979 to 1985, fleeing the Revolution. They are exiles. My family moved to Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, NY in 1967. My father was a medical student in Iran. There was a shortage of doctors in America, so there was a program in which they recruited doctors from overseas. Many of the American doctors were in Vietnam. My parents didn’t come for political reasons (concerning Iran), though American politics were part of it. I’ve always had two passports.
How did your two young female leads respond to the material?
I auditioned 2,000 people for those two roles. It was very difficult to find (actors for Atafeh and Shireen). I think casting is very important. I was originally going to produce this with a bigger U.S. company, with more money. But they wanted me to go with actors that Americans were familiar with – “the guy who was in Crash,” or “the woman who was in House of Sand and Fog.” For this film, I didn’t want recognizable faces.
For the girls’ roles, I was adamant that actors from Iran wouldn’t play them, because they would be in serious trouble. They had to reside outside of Iran, be bilingual, with Persian their native language – and be good actors. Plus, they had to be over 18 for sexual material, but look under 18.
None of the actors auditioning got the script until the final callback, when I narrowed it down to three actors for each of my three lead roles (Atafeh, Shireen, and Atafeh’s brother, Mehran). They were brought to Toronto, where they all auditioned together, to check for chemistry. In fact, the person I wanted to cast for Shireen ended up not working out. She had bad chemistry with one of the actors (auditioning for Mehran). Chemistry between those two roles was important. Nikohl Boosheri has never been to Iran. She was born in Pakistan, after her parents had escaped (the Revolution in Iran), into the mountains. Sara (Kazemy), who plays Shireen, spent her whole life back and forth; she’s half French. Reza Safai, who plays Mehran, lived in Iran until he was in the fourth grade. We all have different relationships to Iran. For them, the film was important because it was their parents’ story. The film also reflected the dynamics of the Iranian family in the U.S. – the sibling rivalry, doing things behind your parents’ back. The stakes were high, because now none of us can go back. We all really had to believe in the project.
Did you feel you had to contrast Shireen and Atafeh in the film?
For me, the two girls are on parallel paths. Their lives are going similarly – both go to the same school, and they are close friends. (“Atafeh” means kindness, “Shireen” means sweetness.) But when they are arrested, because of circumstance, their lives go in different directions. That circumstance has to do with political connections and money. One arrest, one mistake, can mar you for life, with the state. Depending on what you did, you could be barred from university, or certain work, if the crime was political. Women are susceptible to state control, by controlling their dress and who they can talk to. The police are watching the social environment, because to them it’s all political.
Before seeing your film, I got an interesting taste of that from Persepolis.
I love that film – what a great history lesson it is. The transitions in that film could be only done with animation, going from a girl in bed dreaming, to the killing fields after the Revolution. It wouldn’t work in live action.
What’s weird about Persepolis is that it was made in French, and then subtitled in English. It wasn’t subtitled in Farsi until much later. I had a copy of the film, and brought it to my family members, who had just moved to Vancouver from Iran. I told them how much I loved it. But they couldn’t get why these Iranians were speaking French!
Did you think about your two leads as doubles, two halves of one self?
Wow, that’s a great question. I think it’s interesting to see which character we are attracted to, which relates to us at a young age. We are attracted to our alterior personality. And the two leads are each other’s alterior: Atafeh is more outgoing, Shireen is more shy. For me, it’s a question of attraction, more than character development – why people are attracted to their opposites.
I want to say that Shireen’s lesbian sexuality is true, while the playful Atafeh is experimenting. Or maybe that’s me intruding on the story, thinking, “they both can’t be lesbian.”
For me, the film is about the exploration of sexuality. At this point in their lives, they are drawn to the same sex. In other situations, it may continue, or may not. We don’t know, because the state becomes involved in their fates. Also, gay identity is very different in the Middle East. Just saying you are gay is illegal. It’s a complicated question (for Atafeh and Shireen). Yet, so many many Middle Eastern women have come up to me and said, “This is my story.” Or, “Do you know this person? Did you base the film on her?”
That reminds me of Todd Solondz speaking of how proud he is when people from all walks of life – teachers, construction workers, etc. – come up to him and say, “I was Dawn Wiener” (from Welcome to the Dollhouse).
To me, that kind of thing makes the film a success, especially if it goes past national or gender boundaries – when people can read themselves in a character.
I feel that Atafeh’s brother, Mehran, is a loathsome character, but interesting, so he works. I know I should feel some sympathy for him…but to me, he’s a villain.
Some people at a Sundance (Film Festival) party said to Rez, “When you walked in, we were scared.” But he’s one of the nicest people. He’s now in the (San Francisco) Bay area. Rez saw the character as someone who’s damaged, someone seeking to be seen. I have a lot of family who had a similar path as his. They had been liberal, then joined the secret police. These are people I’m still close to. I ask myself, why am I interested in someone like Mehran that I’m nothing like?
I feel like he goes over the edge, with his creepy surveillance of the house (watching Atafeh and Shireen together), and his gay bashing near the end. Did you always want him to be oppressive in this way?
For me, it was interesting how his character changes. In the beginning, he’s not oppressive, but goes that way. What interested me was how the family, during rough times, created their own utopia, their own sanctuary fostered by the parents. I feel that things fall apart only when someone from the inside infiltrates with ideas that will jeopardize the peace, destroying the family. Mehran is desperate, and the only source of empowerment is in his family. It’s not about religion; religion is a source of empowerment in Iran. Mehran is not truly religious, but using it.
I like how you portray the mosque where he prays as, in an American sensibility, an old Knights of Columbus hall, with the interiors worn down and an older stereo that doesn’t work.
That’s what’s interesting about Iran. We have these amazing, grand mosques, but then we have these simple mosques. And when an older man sees Mehran, someone young, come in, he’s intrigued. Also class is apparent, since Mehran is wearing an expensive jacket.
A similar thing happens in the U.S. A good friend of mine, in his early 30s, is a practicing Catholic. And when he joined the church, the mostly older congregation doted on him.
I love to go into churches and see the architecture. At times when I go in someone there gets so excited, and I have to say, “I’m sorry, I’m not Christian.”
Would you say that the element of lesbianism, or experimentation of it, drives home the theme for you?
In a way, it does. But the film deals with duality, and the girls’ sexuality is a pure example of that. Another example of duality: when we are young, we are taught, don’t lie. Lying is bad. But in Iran, parents teach their children how to lie. In Lipstick Jihad, Azadeh Moaveni writes about how she had to teach her child to lie. When I was in elementary school in Iran, the teachers would ask us if our parents prayed, drank alcohol, watched illegal movies. Kids have to learn to say no, even if those things happen at home. You don’t want surveillance in your home.
One of my friends told the teacher that her parents drank, and they brainwashed her for years. Through that time, she really thought her parents were going to hell, and she would cry every night. So, hair is covered in public, but not at home, though kids must say it’s always covered. That duality is so important to the Iranian experience. Youth must find places of freedom – parties, underground clubs. For these kids, it’s the duality they come to know. And the lesbianism (in my film) is just another layer of duality, away from the heteronormal.
I don’t think an Iranian living in Iran could make this film. They take all of this for granted. They wouldn’t see this content as worthy of a film. It’s how they navigate the day. But to me, having lived in America, where there are many choices, I’m fascinated by how Iranians do it. Though American have many choices, it’s also limiting here. At NYU film school, where I attended, it’s 70 per cent men. People would be taken back that I was a female director. I would hear how only 4 per cent of directors are female, and that they never do features, only shorts or documentaries.
And some of the best are female, like Kelly Reichardt.
Yes, she’s amazing, but still after all that success, she makes her films for nothing. Women in comedy, like Nancy Meyers, Penny Marshall, get a little further. Kimberly Pierce – eight years to make her second film. How did she not have any project she wanted after Boys Don’t Cry? I admire how these women directors fought for all they have.
It’s a tenuous situation. I shot in the Middle East, and I thought of how, in Iran, 30 per cent of directors are women – but work with major restrictions in content, of course.
To go in a different direction…you have some eye candy in this film. Was it important for you to have an attractive cast? With these young, gorgeous women in sexual situations, Kama Sutra may be on your hands.
Ugh, Kama Sutra I don’t like so much. But I do like Mira Nair. She came to the MOMA screening (of my film) and really loved it. People came up to her after the screening, and said that they really loved her in the movie… She said, “Excuse me?” People thought she was the mother in my film. C’mon, not all brown people look alike! She’s Indian, first of all. And, was she insulted. I had to explain to them that this is Mira Nair, one of our greatest directors.
As for the attractive cast – maybe Iranians are just attractive people? (Laughs) For Atafeh, I auditioned so many people, and Nikohl had such versatility. She was just out of high school, and had only done school theater. For her role, I liked her versatility and playfulness, which is essential to Atafeh. And for Shireen’s character, Sarah plays someone who’s difficult to penetrate. You can project many things on her, since she holds many things close to her, and her parents were killed because of their politics. I really liked how both actors interpreted their characters.
Back to your question – when we were doing final call backs, a driver did a double-take (at Sarah) and hit the car in front of him. (Laughs) I actually didn’t think I would cast Sarah for Shireen. I had someone else in mind. But when I put her with Nikohl, their chemistry was amazing. The two of them are still best friends.
If someone, in a Western mindset, sees this film and thinks it a depiction of hell with a hopeful Exodus approaching, how would you respond to that?
On some level that is true. But you can only understand it that way if you’d had heaven. In the beginning of the film I worked hard to show a film that was very connected, very loving. And even this amazing family can descend into a type of hell, with the hope of escaping it. But it starts from a place of beauty.
Matthew Sorrento teaches film at Rutgers University in Camden, N.J. His book, The New American Crime Filmis forthcoming with McFarland.
Read our interview with Swedish-Iranian filmmaker, Babak Najafi, here.