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‘Circumstance’: Iranians Exploring Sexuality Under Watchful Eyes

Director Maryam Keshavarz paints a society with limited outs, where surveillance becomes unbearable when it enters the home

Outfest’s U.S. Dramatic Centerpiece, “Circumstance,” is the story of two Iranian teenage girls struggling for personal freedom under the watchful eye of the state and the family.

Keshavarz’s first narrative feature won the Audience Award for Best Drama at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, and will be have a mainstream opening in select theaters Aug. 26.

It follows Atafeh and Shireen, whose close friendship becomes increasingly romantic in contemporary Tehran.

The pair explore their sexuality under the state’s surveillance, trading their scarves for party dresses as they sneak into underground clubs, experiment with drugs, and strip for a swim.

When Atafeh’s brother Mehran comes clean from drugs and returns home, he takes up a more conservative religious and political identity, joining the Morality Police — a trajectory separate from his Westernized, liberal, and affluent family.

Also read: Outfest 2011: Highlights of This Year’s Festival

Mehran’s newfound moral convictions post-addiction necessitate a need for him to control not only the lives of Iranian citizens but of his family as well. He installs security cameras in the house and learns of his sister’s budding relationship with her best friend, and steps in to shut it down.

Keshavarz paints a society with limited outs, where the surveillance only becomes unbearable when it enters the home.

Drawing from many of her own experiences growing up between Iran and the U.S., Keshavarz told TheWrap that a whole network of parties, performances, fashion shows, and even queer gatherings flourish underground in Iran — maybe more intensely than geographies with a less oppressive regime. These spaces for sanctuary are created and coveted out of a need for them to exist.

The film’s most sensual scenes and moments of deviance are paired with vibrant music, provided by composer Gingger Shankar. Peppered with intense, foreboding beats, underground Iranian hip-hop, and even American punk, the music becomes a character of its own throughout the film, reflecting the social, political, and emotional energy of the narrative.

As Atafeh and Shireen’s surveillance swells, the film becomes increasingly silent.

“Circumstance” represents the first leading roles for newcomers Nihokl Boosheri and Sarah Kazemy. During Outfest’s post-screening Q&A Tuesday, Keshavarz said that the playfulness and levity of her character Atafeh shined through Vancouver-born Boosheri’s audition tape.

Casting around the world, Keshavarz told TheWrap that she found her Shireen, a “drop-dead gorgeous woman that looks like Audrey Hepburn” in Paris. Keshavarz found that she and Kazemy, a first-year law student at the time, shared many experiences growing up between worlds in Iran and the West.

The film’s production mirrored its narrative. Keshavarz shared with TheWrap the many roadblocks she and her team encountered along the way. She was insistent on shooting in a realistic location, but because of laws that regulate the content of film production, could not shoot it in Iran.

After looking around the world from Morocco to London, Keshavarz moved her lesbian love story to Lebanon, filming the first American feature to be shot there in 30 years since the war.

She also turned in a much shorter version of the script, translated into Arabic and censored for approval by the Lebanese government. The film could not be processed in Lebanon, either, instead having to smuggle the film out of the country into Jordan, ship it to Dubai and then to the U.S. before the team even got to see the dailies.

Because of the high profile buzz the film created in Iran, none of the cast or crew are able to go into the country unless they’d like to stay there permanently. “One look at any of our passports and they’d know exactly who we are,” Keshavarz told TheWrap.

The film is one of the first of its kind to deal so intimately with Iranian sexuality, especially women’s sexuality. “To show two girls kissing? Absolutely not,” Keshavarz explained.

Women’s hair, for example, is not exposed even indoors in Iranian film, which does not reflect authentic Iranian life, something Keshavarz hoped to present.

Keshavarz said that what touched her most during filming was the dedication her carefully selected team had to the film’s message, despite the risks associated with filming it.

With so much risk and vulnerability, the characters and creators of the film’s strength shined through.