By Kathleen Archambeau
Banned in Iran, Circumstance explores the world Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claims does not exist. Lesbian activity, just like homosexual activity, is punishable by death on the fourth convicted offense in Iran. Being queer is illegal in many Middle Eastern countries, except Jordan, Iraq, Turkey and Israel. So, to create a film that explores the budding romance between two girls who are best friends in modern Iran was so dangerous that 36 year-old bisexual filmmaker Maryam Keshavarz had to film in Lebanon where enforcement is lax.
Keshavarz traverses the worlds between America and Iran to illuminate the tensions between a fundamentalist Muslim government in todayâ€™s Iran and liberal, educated, upper middle class Iranians, disappointed in their 1978-79 revolution against the Shah. For the young, like the cousins Keshavarz spent summers with in Iran, the only escape is a world of forbidden underground parties, black market DVDs and skimpy Western clothes worn under the veil. It is in that underground world that the two main characters, Atefah and Shireen, explore, going from schoolgirls passing origami birds to one another in secret to young women navigating their love for one another in explicit sexual scenes.
Trouble comes home to roost in the film when the two young girlsâ€™ budding romance is discovered by Atefahâ€™s rehabilitated drug addict-musician brother, Mehran, now a devoted Muslim. He turns his sister and her lesbian lover over to the Secret Police for their participation in a plot to dub Milk into Farsi and distribute the banned film. This is where the film turns to hyperbole and runs the risk of overstatement.
Nonetheless, Keshavarz is brave enough to tackle the extremes of Iranian society with extremes of her own in her debut narrative feature film.
She applied to film school and won a three-year stint, finishing her MFA in 2006. Sponsored by the Sundance Film Festival, Keshavarz wowed the independent film world with her groundbreaking film.
Keshavarz has been banned from returning to Iran by Iranian authorities since the film was released. She had to keep the project secret from family still in Iran or they might have suffered repercussions from the authoritarian regime. Even filming in more liberal Lebanon, she had to offer a fake script to the censorship board. Any reference to sexuality or religion had to be taken out. Keshavarz says, â€śThe whole system traps peopleâ€¦You grow up in America and they tell you not to lieâ€¦when I went to school in Iran during the warâ€¦you were taught to lie as a way to protect your family.â€ť
Circumstance is expected to do well in the underground film industry of Iran. In fact, Brokeback Mountain, despite being illegal, was a huge hit in Iran. While Keshavarzâ€™s first feature film focuses on the lives of two lesbian teenagers, it is a universal film about families, repression, love and freedom. Those themes resonate across borders.