In the 1980s, before Iran’s cultural defenses were battered by the Internet, Maryam Keshavarz was a preteen threat to national purity. The U.S.-born filmmaker remembers traveling to her parents’ homeland to visit her cousins, bearing such prohibited gifts as pop-music cassettes.
“I would be sweating bullets going through customs,” she says. “In the old airport in Tehran, there was a bathroom area before you went through customs. And sometimes there would be a rumor, ‘Today they’re cracking down.’ As a kid once, I took all these Michael Jackson tapes, and I was breaking them, trying to shove them down the toilet, because I had heard that today was the day they were going to get you.”
Keshavarz, 36, doesn’t expect to go through Iranian customs anytime soon. Her feature film debut, “Circumstance,” is about lesbian romance and abuse of religious authority, both taboo subjects in Iran. The director and the stars of the personal-is-political melodrama, which opens Friday in the Washington area, think they will probably be banned from the country for the near future.
“Circumstance” follows two high school classmates as they fall in love and explore Tehran’s underground youth culture of rave parties, recreational drug use, graffiti-painting expeditions and grooving to Le Tigre, the American lesbian electroclash trio. It’s “based on my experiences with my cousins,” Keshavarz says. “I was in awe of these women who were really pushing the boundaries.”
Among the story’s illicit locales is a clandestine DVD store. “Once my film is released on DVD, I know it will be available there,” Keshavarz says. “I’ve gotten hundreds of e-mails from kids in Iran. They ask, ‘We tried to download your film on this site. How can we download it?’ ”
Although a few of the movie’s smaller parts are played by actors who still live in Iran, Keshavarz deliberately cast the three central characters from the Iranian diaspora. Lovers Afafeh and Shireen are played by Nikohl Boosheri and Sarah Kazemy, and Afafeh’s manipulative brother, Mehran, by Reza Sizo Safai.
“I auditioned about 2,000 people for the three leads,” the director says. “People could audition from Skype and on video. Nikohl was just out of high school, living in a small town outside of Vancouver. Sarah, I found in Paris. She was not an actor; she was at the Sorbonne. And Reza I found through traditional casting, in L.A.”
Keshavarz decided that the players had to be native Farsi speakers. “Aside from Nikohl, who’s never really been to Iran — her parents escaped when she was an infant — all of us had spent a significant part of time there. The actors were in Iran just before the shoot. Sort of a last-goodbye sort of thing. So when production ended, it was quite an emotional feeling on set.”
The director helped her brother, Hossein Keshavarz, make his 2010 film, “Dog Sweat,” in Iran. But she knew she couldn’t get script approval to shoot “Circumstance” there. So she gambled on Lebanon.
“It’s considered the gay mecca of the Middle East, the French Riviera of the Middle East,” the filmmaker says. “If you’re just a tourist, it’s very liberal. When you try to make a film, it’s more hairy. But it added to the authenticity.
“We had to bend a lot of rules. We basically censored our own script to get a permit to shoot,” she says. “We had some run-ins with the law. I was just amazed that everybody kept a level head. Because we knew, if the film was confiscated, that would be the end of it. There’s no budget to reshoot an independent film.” (Begun as Keshavarz’s New York University film school master’s thesis, “Circumstance” was made for less than $1 million.)
The character of Mehran, who works with the morality police to fulfill his personal desires, would be controversial in Iran. But Atafeh and Shireen’s kisses and caresses — the movie shows nothing more than that — could shock viewers throughout the region. “I can’t even show this film in the Middle East, except in Turkey and Israel,” Keshavarz says. “In Iranian culture, Muslim culture in general, we are so afraid of women’s sexuality. The film, for me, is not necessarily about queer sexuality, but just about sexuality.”
Underlining the movie’s critique is a subplot in which Atafeh and Shireen’s friend Hossein, an Iranian American like Keshavarz, dubs the Harvey Milk movie “Milk” for an Iranian bootleg. “I met someone who dubs ‘Gandhi’ into different languages for conflict zones,” Keshavarz says. “I thought that was great idea, but when I was a kid, ‘Gandhi’ was shown in Iran. He’s the ultimate anti-imperialist, anti-British figure. Often the Iranian government will co-opt these figures. They even co-opted Che.
“So I thought, ‘Who is the figure they really can’t co-opt?’ When I was in Iran previously, ‘Brokeback Mountain’ was really popular. People really connected to the forbidden love. And Iranians really love Sean Penn. I thought there was a crossover between the democracy movement in Iran, and the gay movement in the U.S.”
That doesn’t mean that Keshavarz identifies more strongly with Hossein than with Atafeh and Shireen. “I identify with everyone!” she says, laughing. “But the character of Hossein is sort of nod to my own perspective. Someone who knows the culture but is outside. He’s trying to engage in a dialogue that brings these two worlds together.”
Jenkins is a freelance writer.