"What else could this film go through?" joked Iranian-American director Maryam Keshavarz. If current forecasts are correct, Hurricane Irene is set to slam into the East Coast the same weekend her movie, "Circumstance," is slated to open.
"We couldn't shoot in Iran. Then I was editing in Chile, we had an 8.8 earthquake. And now, after 25 years, there's like a hurricane hitting New York City," she said with a laugh.
Keshavarz talked to me while navigating Los Angeles traffic -- always a dicey proposition. But, then, she is not someone to shy away from risk: She shot her debut feature in a politically hostile part of the world; she managed to tick off the oppressive government of her ancestral homeland; and she faced down at least one natural disaster. In comparison, talking on the phone while driving down Wilshire Boulevard is a cinch.
"Circumstance," which won the audience award at the Sundance Film Festival, is an atmospheric love story between two teenage girls: the affluent Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri) and the orphaned Shireen (Sarah Karzemy). Though there's less skin in this flick than in your average Victoria's Secret catalogue, the scenes where the two explore their desires are undeniably sexy. And though there are plenty of art-house movies detailing the repression of feminine wants and aspirations in the face of a patriarchal culture, it's the movie's Sapphic sensuality grounded in a specifically Persian setting that makes the movie remarkable.
"There are very few films in the Islamic context that deal with sexuality," said Keshavarz, "and women's sexuality especially, that's like a big no-no in our culture."
Considering that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has publicly stated that homosexuality doesn't exist, it's not surprising, then, that the Iranian government has denounced the movie.
Perhaps another reason why Ahmadinejad and company weren't terribly fond of the movie is that it introduces us to Tehran's youth culture underworld. In one scene, Atafeh and Shireen go to a secret rave held in a nondescript storefront, hiding slinky miniskirts beneath their robes. They venture to a barber shop that sells black market videos in the back. These scenes were, in part, drawn from some of Keshavarz's own experiences. She went to Iran every summer until she was 17.
"I was sort of around a lot of girls my age that were very daring," she recalled. "And I very much admired the kind of audacity that they had and their willingness to break the laws to have moments of freedom."
As Keshavarz developed her script, it became more and more obvious that shooting in Iran was not going to be an option. Keshavarz toured several countries in Middle Eastern countries like Morocco and Turkey before settling on Lebanon. Not only does it look the part, but the government has, for the Middle East at least, a relatively liberal government. That didn't mean that she didn't have problems.
"The thing about shooting in the Middle East is you want to be as low key as possible. But, you know, it's a small country, and eventually people find things out. We did have a couple of run-ins with the law. We had moments when we were definitely afraid our film would be confiscated," she said. "You had to have a stomach of steel to work on this project."
Casting was another problem. Keshavarz had very specific criterion for her two leads: They had to be over 18 but not look it, speak Persian, be cool with all the same-sex sensuality in the movie, and have the aforementioned stomach of steel. As she explained to her actors, not only might there be problems with production in Beirut, but they would most likely not be able to visit Iran any time in the near future.
She discovered Sarah Karzemy (who plays Shireen) by chance; she was a friend of a friend and a law student at Paris's Sorbonne. Nikohl Boosheri (Atafeh), on the other hand, was a recent high school graduate from Vancouver who blindly sent in a tape. Keshavarz was so taken with her, she invited her to audition in Toronto. "And that was the first time she's ever been on a plane, " she said. "The second time she's ever on a plane is to come to Lebanon."
Once production wrapped, she went to South America to edit her film with longtime collaborator Andrea Chignoli. Then, on February 27, 2010, Chile was rocked by a massive earthquake. Keshavarz and Chignoli decamped for the marginally more stable ground of Los Angeles.
In spite of Irene, which might literally rain on her parade, Keshavarz is feeling very pleased. All of her many risks appear to have paid off.
"This film is so personal to me that all these people put themselves at risk -- the actors, everybody -- to make this film, you know. I was very lucky."
"Circumstance" opens in Los Angeles and New York this weekend.
See the trailer from 'Circumstance':