An interview with Nikohl Boosheri

Circumstance, a film about two 16-year-old girls in Iran who fall in love, has been tearing up the festival circuit, including winning the coveted Audience Award at Sundance. spoke to Nikohl Boosheri, the actress who plays one of the star crossed lovers, Atafeh, about her experiences dodging the authorities while filming Circumstance in Lebanon and the acclaim the film has received worldwide. What made you want to be a part of the film? What about the script resonated with you?
NB: The script was so good. I have to tell you, when I read that script, I didn’t know what to expect. I don’t mean to put down any writers when I say this I hope, but there aren’t that many great scripts available, especially for no name actors. The script was so well-written. It was risky, it was brave, it was unprecedented, and I saw myself in the character I was playing. I read it and I felt I had to be involved somehow, even if I was playing a different character. I felt so lucky I got to play Atafeh.

AE: How was it like working with (writer and director) Maryam Keshavarz?
I guess the question isn’t how was it like working with Maryam so much as how was it like filming in Beirut for a film that you had to keep very much under wraps and kind of lie about what you’re doing. It was very intense! But Maryam gave us a lot of space to improvise – a lot of the scenes were improvised. We even spent three weeks in Beirut before filming just discussing our thoughts, and it was definitely a collaborative process.

AE: That’s great. Tell me more about filming in Lebanon. You mentioned you had to keep everything under wraps.
Lebanon is, for the Middle East, pretty liberal and cosmopolitan. It feels like you’re in Europe, kind of, but it still is the Middle East. There still is that danger. Maryam and the producers were always very careful that we weren’t caught and that we wouldn’t get in any trouble, considering what we were filming, especially since we gave a shortened script to the [Lebanese] government to get our filming permits.

AE: She gave the government only part of the script?
NB: Exactly. She cut out anything that had to do with sex and religion.

AE: That’s basically the entire film! So then what was left?
So it was scary at times! [Laughs]

AE: What was the cast and crew afraid of? What did you think might happen?
I didn’t really realize how serious it was at the beginning. [Sarah Kazemy] and I were taking pictures of ourselves, documenting our travels, because I had never been outside of North America before. We uploaded those photos onto our websites, and we were taken into the producer’s office and given a stern talking to about that. They told us they didn’t want anyone to know what we were filming, where we were located, and so on. I don’t think I understood how serious it could be until we had the military come onto the set, and that was really quite frightening.

AE: Do you know why the military showed up on set?
NB: Well, the first time, the location we were filming at was located right across the street from the general’s office, or home base, so we needed to get permits to film there. We talked to them, and they told us we weren’t allowed to film on a certain side of the building, because we could also see them. We weren’t even allowed to take [still] pictures on that side of the building. At some point, they felt like we were spying on them and they came in. Half the set was unaware of what was going on.

During the scene where Atafeh’s brother gave her a birthday gift, I didn’t know the military was on the set, and he comes on set, speaking only in English, which was very weird, because as you know, the entire film is filmed in Farsi, and he comes up to me and says, “I just want to wish you a belated Groundhog Day.” So the military watches us for 15 minutes, and the director told us to speak only in English — no Farsi — and just improvise. So we filmed 15 minutes in English, and one of the [military] guys, when he was leaving turned around and told us, “It looks like it’s going to be a great comedy!”

AE: I think that scene should be included in the outtakes of the DVD!
[Laughs] And that was just one case – that was the lighter incident. There was another case where we were doing one of the more intimate scenes in the film, and we were filming in the dining room of a hotel. We made one of the tables into a makeshift bed, and the manager of the place walked by and called the cops. The police came over, thinking we were making a porno. They stood there and watched for around 45 minutes while we filmed, and we just had to improvise again, again in English. I wonder where that tape went. I think it would be very interesting to watch.

AE: So you grew up in Vancouver and it is a very liberal city in a very liberal country, much more liberal than the United States even, in some respects. How did you prepare yourself to play the part? How did you educate yourself, for example, about the underground youth culture in Tehran? The Iranian government is so repressive that I’m sure none of the underground parties that appeared in the film would appear on the internet.
NB: Well it wasn’t easy. You’re right. You actually hit the nail on the head. I was cast eleven months before we actually started filming. We had less than a year to do our research. I had never been to Iran, and I couldn’t go to Iran. I had to rely on stories from family and friends and friends of friends, and families of friends. My voice coach, who coached me on my dialect, was very familiar with the underground scene [in Tehran]. I found articles, such as a great BBC piece where reporters were shown around the underground scene by anonymous kids who wouldn’t reveal their names. On the internet I would try creative searches to find pictures, but when I would try to click on these pictures, the links [to the original photographs] would be gone, so the government is very active in censoring the people. The pictures are being taken down.

But nowadays, with Facebook, I have friends that go to Iran and go to these parties and upload these photos onto Facebook, so these images are becoming more available.

AE: What kind of positive responses have you gotten for your portrayal of Atafeh, not necessarily from critics, but by, say, women – or people in general – who are also not able to express themselves as freely as they would like?
NB: At one of our last screenings I had a southern woman come up to me in the bathroom, who clearly had red eyes and was very emotional. She told me, “I voted for your film, but I believe it goes against everything that I’ve been taught, that I believe in. I feel conflicted. I don’t know if I did the right thing, but I couldn’t help it. A part of me feels that people should see this film.” People from all over the world have found something in the film that they connected with. You go to different cities and people come up to you and share their stories – I feel that that is one of my favorite experiences, at least.

AE: On the flip side, have you gotten negative responses, like say, people who couldn’t get past the content?
NB: I have not yet. I think the people who watch the film who don’t like it simply walk out. I think within 24 hours of our first screening, an Iranian website called the film anti-Islamic, but just personally with individuals seeing the film, I have not.

AE: As a first time actor in a feature film, what was your response when you found out that the film won the Audience Award at Sundance, which is huge for anyone?
NB: Oh my god, yes! It was crazy. I never expected that at all, especially when you’re at a festival you’d think someone would call to tell you not to leave so you can stay and receive your award. [The cast] had no idea we were going to win at all. We went to the party – to wrap up our experience. I remember Sarah had her camera, and she was filming the awards as it was happening, and when it got to ours, she turned the camera off! They were like, “…and the Audience Award goes to…” and she turned the camera off right there. We just screamed. It was amazing. We felt just so honored. Of course, the other big award is the Jury Award, but with the Audience Award, you know the people are responding to the film. The people love the film, even though it’s not in English and it’s about Iranians. [Laughs]

Circumstance opens in select theaters on June 26th.