Iranian films go audience-friendly, are explicitly political

’Circumstance’ breaks so many taboos it will certainly be banned in Iran
There's no going back to Iran now
Courtesy of Maryam Keshavarz

There has never been an Iranian film like it. Circumstance is a love story about two renegade schoolgirls in Tehran who defy authority by cruising underground nightclubs, doing drugs, dancing to Persian hip hop, exploring lesbian romance—and helping dub bootlegs of banned movies like Milk and Sex and the City into Farsi. Circumstance, which won the audience award at Sundance, was shot in Lebanon, under clandestine conditions, and the footage was smuggled out of the country via Jordan to be processed in the U.S. The film’s director and cast hail from five countries in the Iranian diaspora—three of the actors, including the lead, live in Canada. By making the film, they know that under Iran’s current regime they can never set foot in their homeland again.

For decades, Iranian cinema has held a rarefied pedigree. Auteurs like Abbas Kiarostami won acclaim for exquisite neo-realist dramas, often about children, that eluded censorship by hiding politics behind a veil of metaphor. But recently, Iranian filmmakers have become bolder and are suffering the consequences. Last month six were imprisoned by authorities—including Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, who co-directed This Is Not a Film with Jafar Panahi, a droll documentary that shows Panahi under house arrest in Tehran, acting out his next movie, and blocking scenes with masking tape on a Persian rug because he is banned from making a film for 20 years.

But as Iranian cinema faces the harshest repression in its history, it also seems poised to break out of the art-house ghetto. Not only was Circumstance a hit at Sundance, Iran’s A Separation was voted second most popular movie at the Toronto International Film Festival. Asghar Farhadi’s riveting drama follows a feud that erupts after a man undergoing a divorce hires a secretly pregnant woman to care for his Alzheimer’s-afflicted father. The story is wired with a sly critique of Islamic patriarchy: in one scene the caregiver phones a morality hotline to ask if it’s a sin to change the old man’s soiled clothes. Nevertheless, A Separation is Iran’s official Oscar candidate.

Circumstance breaks so many taboos it will certainly be banned in Iran, as will its U.S.-born director, Maryam Keshavarz. She is the sole daughter of seven children, born to parents who immigrated to New York in 1967. A dual citizen, she has visited Iran every year since she was a baby. Though her movie is not autobiographical, she told Maclean’s that it’s loosely based on her experiences in Tehran’s underground youth culture, and on her family, which spans “every aspect of the political spectrum, from Communists to morality police.” The film tells the story of Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri), a 16-year-old free spirit from an affluent liberal family who’s in love with her orphaned classmate Shireen (Sarah Kazemy). Home from rehab, Atafeh’s pious brother joins the morality police and becomes a spy in his own home, while competing with his sister for Shireen. Keshavarz, 36, had originally planned a more classically symbolic Iranian film. Developing her script at a Sundance lab, with Canada’s Atom Egoyan as a mentor, she took more risks. “The characters push you,” she says. “So much of my process was chipping away at self-censorship.”

After a worldwide casting call, Boosheri won the lead role by jetting from her hometown of Vancouver to an 11th-hour audition in Toronto. She hadn’t been on a plane since arriving in Canada as an infant with her mother, who gave birth to her prematurely in the mountains of Pakistan after fleeing Iran. Boosheri’s next plane ride was to the location in Beirut. Though it’s a cosmopolitan city, the filmmakers had to submit a phony script to Lebanese censors, and when police showed up on set, actors would ad lib fake dialogue. During a love scene, recalls Boosheri, 23, “we had to put on robes and pretend we were girls preparing for a party.” The scene of dubbing Sex and the City, and mimicking cries of orgasm, also aroused suspicion. “We had to improvise that they were eating really great chocolate,” says Keshavarz. Her own Farsi-language film won’t need dubbing for Iran’s bootleg editions. This, she says, is one case where she’ll be happy to support piracy.