As an undergraduate at Northwestern University, Maryam Keshavarz majored in math, believing her destiny was to join other members of her family in medicine or science. On the Fourth of July before her junior year, she suffered horrifying injuries in a car crash.
“I was in the hospital for eight months,” she told us at the Sundance Film Festival, where her debut feature, Circumstance, captured the coveted audience award. “I realized then I didn’t want to be tied to the body. I wanted to transcend it.”
Keshavarz shifted to the humanities department, the opening salvo of a now exceptionally promising filmmaking career. The Iranian-born director’s absorbing and impressively made movie is all about bodies in motion. The Persian-language story concerns two beautiful and rebellious young women flouting their sexuality as a personal protest against the repressive and highly regulated social order of contemporary Iran.
Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri) and Shireen (Sarah Kazemy) are deeply curious about their developing attraction toward each other. The dramatic tension develops out of the religious fanaticism of Atafeh’s brother Mehran (Reza Sixo Safai), a former drug addict released from jail who’s become an informant for the state’s morals police.
The film combines the insouciance of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis graphic novels with the kind of political critique found in now-imprisoned director Jafar Panahi’s The Circle and Crimson Gold. (Panahi is one of Keshavarz’s favorite filmmakers.) “As a young woman, I’m somebody interested in dealing with identity and sexuality,” the midthirties director says. “The women look and feel very adult, they’re smoking, they’re having real intimacy, but they’re also still innocent, and that’s the conflict.”
Strikingly shot (in Beirut) by the talented Brian Rigney Hubbard, the film draws out its ideas visually, creating mood and emotion in the contrast between the ecstasy of the body and the chilling confinement, as in a police interrogation, of the state. “I started with a lot of wide shots, like [of] the ocean, where the women can be free,” Keshavarz says. “As the repression starts to enter their lives, everything becomes more suffocating, and it gets darker and darker.”
The three lead actors, like Keshavarz, are Westerners and the children of émigrés. Kazemy, who lives in Paris, says she and Boosheri developed an implicit trust with their director, especially regarding the sexual material.
“Maryam knew what she wanted and she had a reason, and she was understanding and very compassionate in her direction,” Kazemy says. “She talked about how [those scenes were] needed. She said, ‘It’s your character and it’s justified.’ ”
Circumstance opens Friday 9.