The Circumstance director talks at length about her filmmaking influences.
Director Maryam Keshavarz received her MFA in film direction from NYU/Tisch and has been making shorts and documentaries for ten years. Her feature debut Circumstance won the Audience Award at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, and is now being released in the UK. LWLies recently caught up with her recently to discuss the process of putting together her feature debut, her influences, and how her personal experience influenced the film’s themes.
LWLies: Circumstance is your feature debut, though you have worked in short films and documentaries previously. How did you approach the transition to feature filmmaking?
Keshavarz: The basic principles are the same. What I did differently was to surround myself with an entire team that I really trusted, because it was my first feature and we were shooting in Lebanon – a country I didn’t know very well – and using two lead actress that really hadn’t acted very much before. And it was a tricky, controversial sort of script. I was doing lots of scenes I hadn’t done before, like sexual scenes and car chases and party sequences, basically all the things you’re not supposed to do in your first film! I should have added some animals in there, then I could’ve had all the no-nos of a first film.
I think it was an amazing experience. We ran into some difficulties in shooting in Lebanon, but we all pulled together – we were all out to make a great film and we were all out to protect the production at any cost. When we got in hot water now and again with the authorities, everyone kept their cool and we were able to surmount some crazy obstacles. We even had to smuggle the film out of the country for it to be processed. Smuggled it to Jordan to be sent to the US. So you know, we went through a lot of obstacles but I think the thing that I did that I was really happy with was to create a team that I really trusted.
How, and to what extent, have your own life experiences informed the film?
It started as part of my Masters thesis at NYU and it was a class to write from something personal but not necessarily autobiographical. I knew from the beginning that the film would centre around these two girls. Part of that is my experience as a young woman in Iran with my cousins who lived in Iran full-time, exploring the underground scene. But in terms of the structure of the family – that’s based on my uncle who had lived in the US and moved everyone in 1979 during the revolution. When they were all coming to the West, he went back to Iran to take part in the protest and he ended up getting stuck there. I always wondered what it was like for someone who was very liberal to sort of try to raise his family in a repressive environment. A lot of the characters are based on people I know, or amalgamations of people I know or myself at different times of my life. And also that’s the beautiful thing about film; you can have these relationships you never had. I never really had a very good relationship with my father, but in the film, father and daughter have this ultra-close relationship, and it’s the relationship that I always wanted.
The film really addresses a sense of unease. You feel uneasy in this environment where the state can intrude on people’s lives in ultimately despicable ways. I lived back and forth between Iran and the US, and I was writing it in the US. I started it during the Bush-era and I felt that unease of the government watching its citizens and stifling dissent. That feeling permeates the film, I felt was it in the air, not just in Iran, but definitely in the US also. But in terms of when I write the characters, I guess all writers are narcissists – part of it all is a reflection of ourselves and relationships we’ve had and haven’t understood and trying to understand.
Given the film’s controversial themes, was it a challenge to drum up funding and interest?
This film was challenging on many levels! I was able to develop the script at the Sundance Writers and Directors Lab, and also at the Tribeca Film Institute and Film Independent Producers Lab. And those three major institutions that were behind the film were enormously important to getting the film made, because the film was a very, very low-budget film and we had very little cash. In terms of raising money, it was very difficult because we were shooting a film that was controversial, we were trying to recreate Iran in Lebanon, working with two leads who were basically non-actors. And then we were working in a foreign language and had all these crazy scenes, and a lot of people who were potential investors didn’t really think we could get the film done.
Luckily we were able to get a guarantee from our world sales agent that once we showed we were able to get the footage, we were able to get some funding, and that way, we had partners in France and in the Netherlands who were able to help get us some state funds. But it was very challenging piecing the funding from many different ways, different donations and state funds and institutional grants like Cinereach and Center Films Society. A lot of people believed in the project, pushed it forward at different stages. And of course once we had the film in the can, it was a lot easier to find host production money, because it was something tangible that we had actually done. It was much easier to shape the film once we had the footage in terms of getting the final financing. But it was definitely a lot of creative financing, as we like to say!
The film won the Audience Award at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, the same prize won by the likes of Precious and The Squid and the Whale in recent years. What impact did that have on the film, and your career?
Wow, I was in utter shock to have a foreign-language film win in a US category. We were blessed at Sundance, we had a bidding war for the film within 24 hours of premiering so we were able to sell the film and work with the distributors Participant Media and Roadside Pictures. That award really catapulted us to selling the film. It’s premiered in over 14 countries.
How did it affect my career? Well, you get a lot of offers to direct different things, but I’ve tried to continue to create and write my own stories and make films in the way that I want to make them. I want to continue on the vision of my career that I had before all the hoopla, and focus on what I find important as opposed to being taken in by too many seductive offers. Maybe I’ll explore that later in my career. But every film is like starting at ground zero. You have to start all over again regardless of the success of your last film, unless you’ve made Batman! New scripts, selling people on it, getting people together the second time round. It’s a little bit easier but it’s the same process.
For those whose knowledge of Iran is fairly limited, is your film intended to be a realistic depiction of modern Iranian life? Or poetically heightened to couch the story?
Yes, and yes. I often get this question, it’s an interesting one. It’s a very particular point of view that we have when we make a film in terms of what do we show, how do we show it, how do we cast it, what way do we use the camera to tell the story. I grew up between Iran and the US – so I have a certain inside-out perspective of both countries. I use the camera in very particular ways in telling the story, and it has a particular look, a very strong visual language that could be called poetic. I wanted to have a juxtaposition between real-time and fantasy, which has its own language. And there’s the issue of surveillance, which is used in different ways. First of all, on some level it is realistic, it’s actually based on something that happened within my friends and family of someone actually watching their family and of surveillance in their family as a way to gain the upper-hand. And so in that way it’s somewhat based on reality. But it also has a thematic use.
The politics in the film seemed to be to be inextricably linked with the personal (families, bodies, day-to-day). Is Circumstance an explicitly political film?
I guess on some level, all films are political, in what we show or don’t show. But I’m very interested in how 'politics' affects the individual, in microcosm. Because on some level that’s where it can be most deeply felt. If the state can intrude on the interactions of family, on the closest bond between brother and sister or father and daughter, that’s to me the scariest kind of state intrusion. And in a country like Iran, how women dress, what they look like, who they interact with on the street – there are personal things we take for granted, aspects of the personal are very political and they’re surveillanced by the state.
In Iran, the personal is very, very political, but it’s something that always been very fascinating to me, because as a child going back and forth between Iran and the US, I had people from many different parts of the political spectrum in my family, from the ultra conservative religious Islamists to the much more left-leaning folks. So that all kind of would unfold within the theatre of the family, within a dinner at my grandparents’ house. So I really experienced politics as a child through my family and through the personal, through the interactions within my family.
To me that’s really been fascinating: how does one person in the family rise or gain power, how does another become such subjugated, and what are the dynamics within the family given their different political leanings and their rise and in wealth and what not. And of course, in a film that deals largely with women’s sexuality, that’s something that’s very, very political, because women, their bodies, and women are held as symbolic value, especially in Islamic countries. Their sexuality is something to be controlled and it’s control is a symbol of the purity of the state or the pollution of the state. Dealing with female sexuality inadvertently be considered one that’s very political.
Though under pressure, the female characters in your film are young, restless, decision-makers and dreamers. To what extent would you describe yourself a feminist filmmaker?
Well, I’m a filmmaker and feminist! I just see women in that way as strong individuals and not just relegated to these side characters and silent parts of the narrative. Maybe that comes naturally as I’m a woman; writing females as strong characters. Also, within Iran, because women are so much more targeted than men, because of the way they look when they go out on the street, they’re more the target of the morality police. Women end up being very strong in that culture and I think they are constantly pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable. Constantly fighting for their rights in many ways, from the personal to the political spheres. You have a country where over 50 per cent of the people in University are women and they attain a very high representation in the state. Iranian women I know in general are very strong individuals and they’ve been made so by that culture. To portray these girls as rebellious and typical teenagers fighting against authority came naturally. But I was amazed to find Iranian cousins my age really putting themselves at risk to have a moment of freedom and a sense that they have agency in their lives. In some way it’s a love poem to those women who I always found so daring and strong.
Something that really stands out about the movie is the variety of locations used, from urban to rural. Was it important to you to showcase a broad range of Iran to your audience?
Um, I don’t think that’s what was in the forefront of my mind. The narrative was just driving the story and I wanted to have this feeling that home was a pressure cooker of power and desire and all of these battles that were happening. The seaside was a release; a going back to childhood where everyone can be free. There’s a loving, free quality. The idea that when we go on holiday and when you leave Tehran (which is a massive metropolis), and go to a rural seaside town, everyone lets their guards down. I wanted to have that as a juxtaposition. You see them all close and loving, it’s a beautiful scene which underscores that this is a family which is – or was – very very close. You can really feel that, so when later on the family is dismantled, you feel a sense of loss.
Music is very important in the film – the characters are musical and there are some memorable musical sequences. Could you talk a bit about your use of music and what it means for these characters?
It’s funny because we often joke around with the composer that it’s called ‘Repression: The Musical’! Music is a huge character in the film. I met with the composer at the Sundance composers lab where we were paired together. There’s a mix of music in the film; the nostalgic music that the parents sing to each other, that’s actually music that my parents used to listen to in the '50s and '60s before they emigrated to the States. There’s the energetic, angry Iranian hip-hop, and there’s also the classical music of the home to show that the father is bringing in these liberal Western minded environment to the sanctuary of his home. The family sings and dances and there’s a lot of joy together. But as the repression enters the home the music fades away and the film becomes much more silent. Then literally, when the brother doesn’t allow Shireen to sing, it’s like the music and the joy have gone. I find that music – Western, classical, old nostalgic music, hip-hop – all reinforce the narrative.
I found the film to be universal in theme, with well-rounded characters. But are you worried the film has been viewed as niche cinema as it has travelled around the world?
It’s been interesting. It’s been a film that’s travelled around the world, to mainstream festivals like Sundance, and the other mainstream American and European festivals, and then it goes to the gay festivals. Some people view it as an Iranian film or a queer film or an arthouse film. I don’t worry about these things. It can be frustrating when people see it through a particular lens. I was trying to create something a bit more complex. It’s a film that deals with sexuality but it’s not only about that. It’s not a coming out story even though it has queer characters. It’s also about this family, repression, and this desire to create sanctuary, and how we find spaces to express ourselves, and all these things that were floating in my head when I wrote it.
I guess what I take away from it is that you can’t really control how people read it. A lot of people are surprised depending on how it’s marketed, only 'queer' or whatnot. Audiences have been shocked that it’s different to what they’d expected, which is always satisfying as a director. And I like that it does create a conversation. I’ve received thousands of messages via Facebook about the film and done loads of Q&As. It’s exciting when it touches people. A man from Cuba said it was like his experience there, and two women from Columbia said that literally this was there experience. Or an American family who says they can related to the father.
The film, stylistically and thematically, seems to fit into the idea of Iranian New Wave cinema. Where do you see your film’s position within this genre?
Oh gee, I don’t know. It’s a film about Iran made by someone who's both inside and outside of Iran. It’s a different perspective. I don’t know where I fall into that. It’s a good question about identity. I’m Iranian, but I grew up in the States, but I also lived in South America. I’ve lived extensively in Europe, so I’ll leave that to the journalists!
What has the reaction to the film been from inside and outside Iran?
The film is definitely controversial. We had screenings in LA where people would literally fight. People would stand on the table and say, 'This is bullshit. This doesn’t look like Iran, smell like Iran'. Someone else would stand up and go, 'I just moved from Iran six months ago, this is Iran. You don’t understand. People like you are trying to keep us down, to keep our country backwards'. There’s always the fight of what it means to represent Iran. Can a film represent a country? That’s not even something I think is possible. Everything is through the perspective of the director. It definitely rouses people. Some people are incredibly moved by the story of the girls. I’ve had so many people – not only gay young women – who’ve contacted me, from Iran. Other people are angered that I’d show sexuality or nudity between two women. It does have a huge variation of responses, from 'it’s authentic' to 'it’s completely inauthentic'. That’s a good sign, I think. As a filmmaker you make a film and then you don’t own it any more. It’s always exciting, but it’s whatever the audience feels.
Which filmmakers have influenced you most (with reference to this film, and your filmmaking style in general)?
For this particular film we looked at a lot of photography and at painting. But also in terms of filmmakers that I love, I love Wong Kar-Wai, I love Kristof Kieslowski, I love Atom Egoyan, and Lucrecia Martel, Lynne Ramsay. I’m influenced by lots of different types of cinema. I worked very closely with my DoP looking at painting and photography, but really we wanted the camera to tell the story as much as possible. At the beginning of the film there’s lots of dolly moves, it’s very light and airy and free, even though there’s surveillance at the start too, you get the sense that the girls are free. As the surveillance comes inside and the brother becomes more repressive within the family, everything becomes more claustrophobic and crowded; hand-held and much more uneasy. The camera aids in the telling of that story.
There’s a huge juxtaposition between real-time and the sexuality that the girl's experience in their fantasy which is very glossy, like an ad in a magazine. It’s only in their fantasies and their minds that they’re nude and free and sexually explicit. In real-time there’s a lot more close-ups, and they’re a lot more hesitant and innocent in what they do. So it’s this idea that in our minds we’re much more free. That speaks to me: I grew up between the States and Iran, but in the US my parents were very religious and I grew up within a very conservative environment even though the general environment in New York was liberal, I grew up with the opposite. Like the girls. What spoke to me was that as a young girl, my mind, my imagination, my dreams and journals where I’d write in fake language, they were the place I could be free more than anywhere else. That’s what I wanted to show in the film in terms of the girls’ sexuality.
From a narrative point of view, Circumstance leaves things open to interpretation. Do you think you might come back to these characters in a future film? It would be great to know where they go next.
A lot of people have asked that! I don’t think so. I really found closure with the film on some level. You know that these girls are strong, and maybe that their circumstances won’t remain the same and who knows what would happen in the future, if they would meet again. I like this idea of wondering and letting your mind fill that in. That’s why I ended it there, so that people could have a more active involvement on that level. I think a lot of directors do that to a more challenging, or frustrating degree. I’ll never forget seeing Lucrecia Martel’s The Holy Girl at the New York Film Festival and it just ends – typically – where the third act should begin, and everyone was so angry, and said 'well, what happens?'. And in the Q&A she said, 'Well, the film had to end there because whatever I’d say would be predictable. It’s only here if I ended that you have to fill in the blanks and become more of an active audience member.' I thought that was brilliant. That really stuck with me.
What’s next for you? Do you have another feature lined up?
I’m doing a small feature in the winter. Circumstance is sort of a trilogy of features about Iran in three periods. one was present day, one is going to take place during the revolution and one takes place in the 1850s. But those are much bigger projects, so they’re going to take some time to get made. In between I’m going to do much smaller, intimate films. So there’s a very small film I’m shooting in the winter in-between the Iranian trilogy.