Women drive the new film Circumstance—as is surprisingly common in Iranian cinema
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."
Iranian-American academic and documentarian Jamsheed Akrami, who's currently working on a film about Iranian cinema and censorship, says technology has made a difference. "The younger generation of women in Iran is more attracted to film, despite all the economic and political hurdles," he says. "They understand the realities of the new global media technologies and realize they can use film to communicate with much larger audiences across the world."
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But progress in Iranian film has been met with setbacks. While 2011 has produced a few works that have made a splash on the international film festival circuit—Asghar Farhadi's A Separation, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb and Jafar Panahi's This Is Not a Film, Mohammad Rasoulof's Goodbye—the latter two attracted attention in large part because Panahi and Rasoulof have been sentenced to six-year jail. (Panahi's ban from filmmaking is ironically evoked in the name of his film.) In this climate, several prominent directors, including Bahman Ghobadi and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, have emigrated.
Akrami's take on the outlook for Iranian cinema is grim.
"I don't think the arrests will have much impact on how women's issues will be covered in Iranian films in the future," Akrami says. "The situation is already so bleak that it's hard to imagine it might get worse. The severe censorship codes have made it increasingly more difficult for the filmmakers to deal with not just women's issues but any issues with political or social significance."
Circumstance is unusual in presenting a same-sex love story in Iran. In one scene, its characters get involved with dubbing Gus van Sant's Milk into Farsi. Keshavarz decided to refer to Harvey Milk after selecting several radical political leaders, including Che Guevara and Mahatma Gandhi, and discovering that they had all been co-opted by the Iranian government. Harvey Milk's life has obvious resonance for her lesbian characters, but she discovered that gay love stories have an unexpected appeal in Iran. She first saw Brokeback Mountain there and was surprised to discover that it became a hit on bootleg DVD. As she remembers, " I was shocked. I asked people 'Do you like the movie? What do you like about it?' They said 'We totally understand forbidden love and being unable to be open about who you love.' "
Is Circumstance, which has racked up rave reviews and whose showings will be expanding from LA and New York to elsewhere in the country in the coming weeks, a feminist film? Its maker startles at the question. "No one's ever asked me this!" Keshavarz says. "If 'feminist' means putting women's voices on a platform, of course it's feminist. The lead characters are women who are striving to express freedom for themselves."