Navigating Circumstance Nikohl Boosheri and Sarah Kazemy on Coming of Age in Iran
Circumstance is the story of two 16-year-old best friends living in Iran who discover their connection is more physical and intimate in nature than they comfortably know what to do with. Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri) is the daughter of wealthy, reasonably liberal parents whose older brother Mehran (Reza Sixo Safai) has just returned home after suffering a serious setback and now feels like a failure. Shireen (Sarah Kazemy) has been recently orphaned and is living with an uncle he sees her as an inconvenience, hoping to marry the young woman off as soon as he can.
The movie features twists, turns, heartbreak and emotional elations as it navigates its way through its intensely personal coming-of-age travails. Both ladies must make decisions that will affect the remainder of their lives, as well as those of their respective families, all the while Mehran falls into a trap of religious and political intolerance in a pursuit to make Shireen his wife.
For young actresses Boosheri and Kazemy, taking on the roles of Atafeh and Shireen was an opportunity neither took for granted. “Because we’re not important at this stage,” laughs Boosheri, “as young actresses we typically don’t get to look at a script until we almost have the role. In this case, I was given two small screens, and then I auditioned, but even from those precious few words I knew I badly wanted to be a part of this movie. I could tell right away that this was going to be something special, and when I found out when I was going to be a part of the final auditions, and at that point finally got a finished script, I’d made a decision I was going to do whatever it took to grab a part in the film.”
“It was similar [for me],” adds Kazemy. “When I read [writer/director Maryam Keshavarz’s] finished script, I was so blown away by it. The part of Shireen was so lovely. So tragic. Reading it broke my heart. I knew I wanted to play her very badly, and I was just lucky Maryam trusted me to do it. It was a great opportunity and the character really spoke to me.”
“When we auditioned together [Maryam] had us do the scene in Farsi,” recalls Boosheri, “and I don’t read or write Farsi so I had to have my mother translate the scene phonetically, which I remember really embarrassed me and I hoped wouldn’t keep me from getting the part. But my mother, going through some of the scenes, the look of worry on her face; it was priceless.”
“See, it’s a good thing I can read Farsi,” replies Kazemy,” because if my dad had read the script he probably would have been like, ‘Go into you room. Lock the door. Stay there.’ He never would have let me come back to the audition.”
The two actresses laugh about this for a moment, yet at the same time both understand that when they say, ‘those scenes,’ they’re talking about sequences in the film that for some Muslim and Middle Eastern audiences will not be easy to talk about let alone stomach. The level of emotional and physical intimacy going on between their respective characters, the eventually sexual nature of their relationship, in Iranian culture specifically, these are not topics hushed about let alone broached out loud.
“We talked a lot about the themes and the romantic nature of the film quite a bit,” states Kazemy. “With talking with Maryam, we really got a good idea of what she wanted to do. This wasn’t going to be blasphemous. It wasn’t going to be sensationalistic. This was going to be an open and honest look at these two young girls and what it was they were going through.”
“We had a clear and concise script in front of us,” adds Boosheri. “The more racy scenes were already written out in great detail, so we had [time] to prepare for them before filming where we could go through everything, every little motivation, every thought and every desire of the character. We could come up with how these scenes would be and how we [as actresses] would want to portray them. It allowed us to stay true to Atafeh and Shireen; allowed us to stay true to their journey.”
“But I do remember reading the script for the first time being so surprised. You don’t expect anything that happens in this movie to be part of an Iranian movie. It’s never been done before. No one has ever talked these subjects before. No one. And it’s not just the lesbian stuff. The parties. The scene at the underground dance stuff. How it explores the relationship between our characters. The distinctly female point of view and spin of it all. You just don’t see that in an Iranian film. It’s never happened before. This made me very excited.”
What with last year’s domestic release of No One Knows About Persian Cats and now 2011’s unveiling of Circumstance, it does feel like filmmakers are willing more than ever to take chances in regards to talking subjects about Iran, willing to go places others have, in most respects quite wisely, feared to tread. This fact is not lost on either actress, both of them fully understanding the magnitude of what their feature means in regards to Iranian cinema.
“There is so much of what is going on Iran that is so rarely seen,” says Kazemy. “Whether it be art, or music, or even relationships, like taboo relationships like the ones showcased in our film, western countries do not get the opportunity to see this side of Iran. But they are there. These things are happening. It is from here that change is going to happen, and I think filmmakers like Maryam know this and are choosing to showcase these things within their films. It is important and it makes me feel good as an actress that I could be small part of showing these aspects of Iranian culture to the world.”
“I think we all had the kind of feeling when we read the script that we were doing something important,” Boosheri flatly states. “You never know if a movie is going to do well. You never know if it will be a hit or if critics are going to like it or anything like that. You never know if it is going to be seen at all, let alone get into Sundance and win the audience award. But I think we all knew, all had this feeling, while making the movie that no matter what happened we were doing something important, that we were making a movie with a voice that needed to be heard.”
“I mean, you don’t want to say it, you don’t want to jinx it, but I remember when we were all together we all collectively knew that [Circumstance] had the opportunity to be something really big. And not big in box office terms or anything like that, but big in that what we were showing had never been done before, that we were making movie about subject matter no one outside of Iran had ever seen. That made it exciting, and I for one couldn’t wait to get to work on the set everyday because of that.”
In the end, though, when you strip away the political aspects, when you get past the story’s setting and you focus in on the characters themselves, it is their hugely personal journey into adulthood that is the crux of the film’s narrative arc. This is a coming of age story of two teenage girls longing to break free from the restrictions that bind them so they can be together to live the lives they’ve always dreamed of, and as such even with the Iranian setting the final product itself is a scenario just about anyone of any culture can in some way relate to.
“Most definitely,” agrees Kazemy. “This is a love story, and it is that love story that is most important for the audience to be able to relate to. For me, it was helpful that right before shooting, we spent a month together in Beirut rehearsing and getting to know one another. We were spending 24-hours a day together, and I discovered that we [Nikohl and I] really liked one another, that we were becoming such close friends; it made it easier to give our characters life. We were becoming close before we even shot anything and our relationship as Nikohl and Sarah really helped infuse the story of Shireen and Atafeh with something beautiful and I think believable.”
“Obviously as an actor you do your research and you do your homework,” interjects Boosheri, “but sometimes you just have to leave that at the door and just go with it, let the relationships themselves take over. Because Sarah and I became such close friends while making the movie, because we came to know one another so well, I think that really helped make the bonds between Shireen and Atafeh that much more affecting. So much of what happens in the movie is so beautiful, yet also so heartbreaking, and I’m not sure we could have achieved that level of intimacy if we hadn’t been forced to spend so much time getting to know one other as actors and as friends before the start of filming even began.”
In the end, both actresses have high hopes for Circumstance, and they can’t help but hope the film finds a broader audience than that inside the festival circuit or the local big city art houses. “Straight, gay, Muslim, Christian, whatever, this is a universal story that I think people can connect to,” says Boosheri. “It is a movie about growing up. It is about making sacrifices. It is about so many things, and I’m positive Iranians and those in the Middle East will find a way to see this movie as well. It speaks to everything, and I’m so proud I got to be a part of it.”
“Me, too,” responds Kazemy with a smile. “I’ve already gotten so many messages from people all over the world who want to see this movie, asking me how and when they are going to get the chance to go and see it for themselves. The response has been just so incredible. It’s almost overwhelming, and I can’t begin to express how much being a part of this has meant to me. If only one person in a 1000 finds something they can connect to, if it makes just one person think a bit more about Iranian culture, about sexuality, about love, about family, about all of the things going on inside of the movie, then we have done our job.”
- Interview reposted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle