In Movies by Iranians, a Feminist Streak

Women drive the new film Circumstance—as is surprisingly common in Iranian cinema

circumstance movie full.jpg

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Maryam Keshavarz's Circumstance, which hit theaters Friday, depicts an Iran that the American media rarely shows—indeed, an Iran that Iranian media rarely shows.

In Iran, women are only allowed to take their hijabs off indoors, but films are banned from showing this. And yet Circumstance does, as it tells the tale of a teenage lesbian couple struggling to stay together in Tehran.

To get these images, though, Keshavarz had to film in Lebanon, recreating specific Iranian streets—right down to their graffiti—by studying pictures from Facebook. By doing so, she knew would be in danger of arrest if she returned to Iran. Early in the screenwriting process, this weighed on her: "I was afraid of overstepping my boundaries and doing something too political and jeopardizing my ability to go back." But, she adds, "the characters themselves were pushing me to be more honest."

"Maybe Iranian women have to be really strong to survive. You have to be aggressive and be on the offensive on some level. These are also skills you need to be a director."

Keshavarz's just the latest in a growing tide of Iranian filmmakers risking life and limb for their craft. What's more, she's part of a growing tide of women filmmakers to do so: Some of the most high-profile movies about Iran in the past few years have all been directed or co-directed by women, including Shirin Neshat's video-art shorts and feature Women Without Men, and Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud's Persepolis. And the Iranian New Wave that's livened up world cinema over the past 20 years has been notable for a string of strong feminist films, some of them directed by men.

It's a trend that's all the more intriguing when contrasted with America, where no major summer films have been directed by women, the percentage of women directors in Hollywood is widely reported to be in the single digits, and the only recent big film hailed for moving the industry's depiction of women forward was the raunchy, male-directed Bridesmaids. Keshavarz, an Iranian American who grew up in the states but has spent a good deal of time in Iran, sees American cultural hypocrisy with its box office fare that expects women to be fascinated by men's stories, but not vice versa. "All these bromance films about male bonding...women are supposed to feel some sort of affinity for them as well," she says. "The male norm is supposed to be the norm for everyone."

Why's Iran different? Keshavarz suggests that the difficulties of negotiating Iranian patriarchy may inadvertently have created a generation of female filmmakers in her country. "Maybe Iranian women have to be really strong to survive," she says. "If you're going to survive in [Iran's] environment, there's a level of strength you have to have to break those rules, negotiate those rules, and be on guard. You have to be aggressive and be on the offensive on some level. These are also skills you need to be a director."

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Steve Erickson is a freelance writer who lives in New York. He has written for Gay City News, The Nashville Scene, Film Comment, the Tribeca Film Festival's website, Fandor's blog, and elsewhere.

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