From the film's description on paper, a coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of cultural oppression in Iran, "Circumstance" could seem like an earnestly dour slice of good-for-you cinema, so the giddy, high-style group who bounded onstage at the Sundance Film Festival to accept the prize when it won the U.S. dramatic competition audience award turned more than a few heads.
The unlikely team that came together to make "Circumstance" represents something of a cross-section of the post-revolution Iranian diaspora. The film, which opened in Los Angeles on Friday, is the debut narrative feature film for writer-director Maryam Keshavarz, 36, born in New York to Iranian parents. Actress Sarah Kazemy, 23, is half-French and half-Iranian and lives in Paris. Actress Nikohl Boosheri, 22, was born in Pakistan to Iranian parents as they were making their way to Vancouver, Canada. Iranian-born actor Reza Sixo Safai, 39, lives in Los Angeles. Only Boosheri has never actually been to Iran.
"We all come from such different backgrounds, how our families left Iran, what's our relationship to Iran," said Keshavarz recently in Los Angeles. "All of us have very different experiences, and yet we all brought something to the table."
"We're all Persians, so we have the same culture, and it's like we know each other no matter where in the world we live," added Kazemy on a call from Paris.
An old and vibrant drama, with a shimmering sexiness, the film follows teenage girls Atafeh (Boosheri) and Shireen (Kazemy), whose deep friendship seems to be blooming into a romantic love. Their attraction grows as they explore the seductive world of Tehran's underground parties brimming with music, dancing, drugs and alcohol, in the period just before the 2009 elections. At the same time, Atafeh's brother, Mehran (Safai), fresh from drug rehab, seems to trade one obsession for another when he joins the Morality Police, charged with zealously enforcing the country's strict cultural laws.
Shot in Lebanon to stand in for Iran with dialogue in Farsi, the film nevertheless played in the U.S. dramatic competition at Sundance. (It is technically considered an American production.) Besides the prize at Sundance, the film has also picked up awards at the gay-themed Outfest and NewFest as well as the L.A.-based Noor Iranian Film Festival.
"So you have queer, Iranian and art house, all parts of who I am on some level," said Keshavarz, who identifies herself as bisexual. With a background in academia and a graduate of the film school at New York University, she has also made a number of short films and the 2003 feature documentary "The Color Of Love. "That those audiences all connected with the film feels strongly satisfying. It's all these different influences, it's all of those things."
The lives of the characters in the film are filled with little everyday rebellions, such as when heading into a raucous house party, the girls reveal glamorous party dresses under their school clothes. One matter-of-factly whips off her pants in a stairwell to complete her look.
"They are young, and they want to party, like every young person everywhere in the world." said Kazemy. "In Iran, to live their youth they learn to hide things, to lie a little, but they don't even think they are lying or hiding, that's how they live."
Keshavarz likes to say she made the film for herself, but it actually serves a number of audiences at once: Westerners with no sense of day-to-day life within Iran as well as members of the international Iranian community who will recognize pieces of their own culture.
"It's a window into a world that a lot of us in the West don't see," said Safai. "And the truth of the movie, what a lot of youth experience and go through, I think Iranian audiences anywhere are going to love seeing that, finally someone showing what we see on the daily. It works for the different audiences for different reasons. When I first read the script it appealed to both these sides of me."
Though the film has been created by a cosmopolitan collective who all have deep ties to Iran and its culture, none of them actually do live there, and the film has yet to be shown there either officially or unofficially. So what made Keshavarz and her collaborators the ones to tell the tale of fast-evolving young Iran?
"People who have political or social issues with the film, the only question they ever ask me is, 'When was the last time you were in Iran?'" said Keshavarz. "The question is always one of authenticity or the right of someone to make a film. And that's a valid question.
"I'm not someone who has lived my whole life in Iran and that's definitely not the perspective of the film. I think it makes the film different, that I'm both of those things, I'm inside and outside. I have a deep understanding of the culture, and yet I don't understand it on some levels. And I feel the same way about American culture — familiar and alien simultaneously."