Iranian filmmaker Maryan Keshavarz's new film, Circumstance, chronicles the lives of two sixteen-year-old girls navigating a lesbian relationship in Iran. An official statement reads: "set in contemporary Iran in the unseen world of Iranian youth culture, filled with underground parties, sex, drugs and defiance, CIRCUMSTANCE is the story of two vivacious young girls -- wealthy Atafeh and orphaned Shireen -- discovering their burgeoning sexuality and, like 16 year-old girls anywhere, struggling with their desires and the boundaries placed upon them by the world they were born into."
Keshavarz told Reuters that the scarcity of coverage on the topic inspired her, saying, "I've seen very few films that address women's sexuality -- in Iran, in the Muslim world, at all. As much as some people are upset about the film, there are other people who are like, 'Finally! Something that's us!'
In a Wall Street Journal interview, Keshavarz explained her reaction to criticism of the film: “It’s usually Iranian men in their 50s and 60s. Often, the questions are framed in terms of authenticity. Like I don’t have the right to speak because I don’t live in Iran. But I’ve always been very upfront that I go back and forth, and I have a different perspective than a filmmaker from Iran would. But I also have a difference perspective than an American filmmaker would. And because I go back and forth, I see change in a different light.”
Early versions of Circumstance were not so forthright on the intimate nature of the relationship between its two leads, Keshavarz notes: “everything was implied; nothing was shown." But as she continued to refine her vision at the Sundance Writers she realized that honest portrayal of her subject was essential: “as I started writing more truthfully and the characters became more real as opposed to symbols, I really started to strip away my self-censorship, and I realized that if I was going to make the film, I had to make it as truthfully as possible, and once I got that in the script, I would never be able to return to Iran.”
Keshavarz understands that many people will be upset by her deliberately provocative film, saying “people are threatened by the film, and not just the issues of sexuality, but it also deals with repression and how it affects individuals. They’re really unnerving topics, and they’re addressed in different ways in Iran. They can’t show the scenes that I do and that’s uncomfortable for them. But I think it’s good to have that discomfort.”
The controversial nature of the film meant that filming in Iran wasn't a possibility, so Keshavarz substituted Beirut for Tehran. Since homosexuality is illegal in Lebanon and Keshavarz had to get permission from the government to film the movie, she had to submit a script without scenes that involved sexuality and religion. "We shot those scenes anyway. We just didn't submit them," Keshavarz said.
The Daily Beast reported that one day during the filming of an erotic fantasy sequence the police paid a visit, so the actresses quickly improvised a scene of them talking about their boyfriends.
Keshavarz admits that the reaction has been "a little hostile." But, she continues, "it’s strangely satisfying that even if some people don’t like it, they engage in a conversation afterwards, and even if it’s hostile, it’s still a conversation, and I appreciate that.”
Watch the trailer for Circumstances below: