An interview with Maryam Keshavarz

Maryam Keshavarz is the director of the new film, Circumstance, which follows two high school girls navigating their way through life in modern-day Tehran. It gives a fictional glimpse in to a world where tradition, love and identity collide.

After a recent screening in Philadelphia, Maryam sat down with us to discuss the inspiration for Circumstance, what Iran is like for women today and the romantic relationship between the girls in the film. What is Circumstance about in your own words?

Maryam Keshavarz: Circumstance on one level is about a very liberal family in Tehran, Iran who is torn apart when the brother and sister start to go in different directions. But also on another level it’s a love triangle about a brother and sister in love with the same girl.

AE: I’m just curious what the inspiration for the film was.

MK: The psychological inspiration for writers. Many things. I was trying to focus the background on Iran; my background is Iranian. I think I wanted to do something about young people in Iran. From a woman’s perspective, from my own perspective as a young woman as a teenager, like, navigating the underground world of Iran with my cousins. I was struck at how young and brave just they’re always going against the grain. This great dramatic structure. You know, people going against what is expected of them.

And then I’m not really interested in films about “politics,” I was always interested in films about family dynamics maybe because I grew up in a huge family, so the idea was I had an uncle who lived in the U.S., he had gone to MIT, and he had gone back to Iran in ’79. So when people were coming to America, he was going back to Iran to take part in the protests. He ended up getting stuck there and staying there raising his family there. And he was incredibly liberal in any ways like the father in the film. I was fascinated by how does someone who is very liberal, open-minded, who is very much against like what the status quo of the government, how do they create family and sanctuary and utopia. And I think that is very human. Like in any repressive culture people try to create a special space, and what are the vulnerabilities of that.

AE: One of the things that you had mentioned was that this comes from a personal space. So I guess the personal space is the connection to Iran. You mentioned that you had grown up both in the U.S. and Iran.

MK: My parents came in the ‘60s, so unlike a lot of Iranians who live in the U.S. who came during the Revolution who don’t go back to Iran, my family came because there weren’t a lot of doctors in America in the sixties because doctors were going to Vietnam, so my dad was recruited to be a doctor.

But I have two passports, and I feel very connected to both cultures. I have two passports … In some levels they [Iranians] know a lot more than Americans about politics. Like talk to any Iranian cabbie in New York and they’ll tell you about Obama and what he should and shouldn’t be doing.

AE: I’m curious, you said that you weren’t interested in any political aspects, but are you expecting any political outcomes from the film?

MK: You know, I think that in a world where like social interactions, women’s bodies, all these things are controlled by the state, even the smallest things are political. Not political, in what we consider in the Western World, marching in the streets, but politics of relationships, politics of body. I don’t know.

I don’t make films as a call to arms, they reflect a deep need to tell a story. How films are read, we can never foresee. You don’t know how audiences will read and project your film. You don’t own the film. The author is dead. It’s what the author reads.

AE: Touching on that, how do you think audiences will interpret the film? It’s a relationship between two women. How do you think, one, they will interpret the film and two, they should interpret the film?

MK: There isn’t any correct way to interpret any piece of art. I think what art does that other mediums don’t is that there is a space for the viewer to project on to the characters, to project on to spaces, to identify, or hate, all these different emotions on to film. I think that’s why cinema is so powerful.

I don’t know what your background is. I don’t know if you have some sort of addiction. Do you relate to the brother, who is someone who is struggling as someone who isn’t evil? Do you relate to the sister because you’ve been in that situation? It depends on your background. It depends on many things.