In 1982, my parents packed a suitcase and paid a smuggler to help them escape from Tehran, Iran. The reason? Me. It wasn’t the political revolution itself that drove them out of their homeland. It was the realization that in post-revolution Iran, their five-month-old daughter wouldn’t have simple freedoms like walking down the street without wearing a chador or being able to listen to music publicly. This was simply unacceptable for my parents, who to this day selflessly place my well-being above everything else. And so we left to start over in the land of the free: the United States of America.
Twenty-nine years later, I live an extraordinary life in Los Angeles, California. Just like my parents wanted, I am free. Free to pursue the career of my choosing. Free to travel. Free to walk down the street in a sundress or wear a bathing suit to the beach. Free to practice my religion openly. Free to sing and dance and revel. Free to love whomever I chose. I’m free in the broadest, most uncompromised, sense of the word.
But I’ve often wondered what would have happened if my parents had stayed. Who would I have become? How has circumstance affected my identity?
Watching the recently released film, Circumstance, by Iranian-American filmmaker Maryam Keshavarz, I discovered some of the answers. The film follows an upper class Iranian family in modern-day Tehran and touches upon the complex relationships between liberation and repression, religion and counterculture, and family and the individual. The film revolves around two teenage girls, Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri) and Shireen (Sarah Kazemy), who fall in love as they bravely and shamelessly navigate Tehran’s underground. Although light in tone at first, the film soon becomes a brooding study in surveillance and sacrifice, as Atafeh’s brother, Mehran (Reza Sixo Safai), who is just out of rehab, joins the morality police and begins monitoring his own family.
The girls soon find themselves stuck between two worlds: a fantasy world where they are free to be together and live openly (a literal dream sequence where the girls are in Dubai), and their more conservative reality, which is steadily being encroached upon by Mehran. When Mehran begins to suspect the illicit relationship between Atafeh and Shireen, he commits an act of betrayal so intense it causes a shift in the film’s cinematography. Wide, open shots are replaced by claustrophobic imagery that makes the viewer feel as trapped as Atafeh and Shireen.
Despite the obvious impulse to broadly characterize this film as an Iranian lesbian movie, the film is far more nuanced. Circumstance takes viewers on a vivid journey across Tehran, from intimate family dinners to decadent secret nightclubs, mosques to mountains, and bedrooms to jail cells. Along the way, Maryam explores critical relationships as she tests the ties between father and daughter, brother and sister and among friends.
The film also reveals the interplay between a very conservative city and its strikingly liberal and Western-influenced counterculture. American music blares as teenagers dance at throbbing nightclubs, which appear straight out of Hollywood or Miami. At private celebrations, alcohol flows despite stringent rules to the contrary. When it comes time to make a political statement, Atafeh and Shireen help a friend overdub the movie “Milk.” In these private moments, we see glimpses of pre-revolution Tehran, which was a cosmopolitan mecca of culture, literati and revelry. Through her film, Maryam exposes audiences to an Iran that is much more complex and varied than the news coverage it receives.
Maryam’s personal story as a filmmaker is as compelling as her film. After studying film at NYU, Maryam was accepted into the prestigious Sundance Producers Lab where she developed the script for Circumstance. Maryam has described how she battled her own self-censorship while developing the film, realizing that if she made it she could never return to Iran (something her actors had to come to terms with as well, as Reza Sixo Safai explained in a recent Los Angeles Q&A). Due to its controversial subject matter, the film was shot below the radar in Lebanon over the course of 24 days (after getting approval on a version of a script that had all sexuality and politics removed). The production then smuggled the footage out of the country (much like I was smuggled out of Iran as an infant).
I like to believe that even if I had remained Iran, I would still be living a life defined by the things I love: relationships, music, art, travel. But watching Atafeh and Shireen, I realize what a luxury my way of life truly is. Remembering the sacrifice my parents made nearly thirty years ago, leaving behind friends, family, possessions and the only home they had ever known, I am inspired to live each day fully, taking advantage of the freedom my parents risked so much to afford me.
Circumstance is the Sundance Audience Award winner for Best Drama 2011.