It Doesn't Have To Be This Way

It Doesn't Have To Be This Way
  • 1 of 1

Notes on Making Maryam Keshavarz's Film "Circumstance"

You are talented. You are young, enthusiastic. You have nonetheless seen something of the world, at least of Iran, homeland of your ancestors and your regular summer destination. You have studied: Middle Eastern and Gender Studies, at an excellent university; film, at an excellent film school. You have made shorts, and a feature-length documentary. You write and shoot your first feature-length narrative. You film it in Beirut, because in Tehran they certainly won't let you make a film about lesbian love with explicit sex scenes. They probably won't in Beirut either, but there the censors are a little more lax and you manage to pull the wool over their eyes. Your film arrives in the United States. The fanfare of publicity is almost deafening, but clear: your film breaks taboos, sheds light on gay life in Iran, offers a window on 'Persian' youth culture, strikes a blow for freedom and human rights. You win the Sundance Festival audience award. You are interviewed by the New York Times, which praises you and your film in glowing terms.

            You tell us the story of the love of Atefeh and Shirin. They are two high school students in Tehran. They walk and talk and look and make love as if they were ten or fifteen years older. They are Iranians who speak with the accents of people who grew up in Europe and North America, although you went to great lengths to have a theatre director flown in from Tehran to ensure authenticity in dialogue. They have two desires: to escape the harsh and invasive attentions of state and family, finding themselves in a world of underground parties that resemble fully-fledged nightclubs in London or New York; and to lose themselves in the passion of their caresses. Atefeh's elder brother, Mehran, however, stands in their way. Classical musician, but bereft of ambition; a drug-addict - he becomes an ardent Muslim in service of the violent Islamic state. Enamoured of Shirin but unable to possess her, he schemes with his new colleagues  - who are too stupid to operate a microphone, but dab hands at repressing young people - to shame her and Atefeh; to separate them; to possess Shirin by marriage. The acting is solid; the story, for all its problems, helps us pass the time.

            You claim to be a cultural translator, but you serve us some of the nastiest, most indigestible chunks of our own culture in the guise of the other. Taboo-breaking lesbian eroticism embedded in socio-political context turns out to be clichéd Western masculine fantasies of exotic Eastern women clad in same-sex garb, presented to the audience by a voyeuristic camera. Naturally, for you would not want to disappoint, the first sexual encounter of the two women is accompanied by the call to prayer: for such is the Truth of life in the Muslim world. Or an important part of it, since you show us the rest of it too: a gang of angry bearded men rushing around oppressing people, especially women. There is nothing else.

            You show us flight from all this: flee to Dubai! There we can have all the sex we like in luxury apartments overlooking the beach. To hell with the ranks of the exploited who made this city of skyscrapers and shopping malls rise from the desert. Consume, and be free! When awaiting your flight, at least realize the limited freedom Iran allows: the freedom of the underground of endless vodka shots and tight, sexy clothes and flirtation and fashionable music.

            In truth, you tell us, better to wait until the Westerners come and save us again. With some help from Participant Media, audiences in the States will take action. From your film, they'll learn all about how life is really like in Iran, how the young folks just want to party and be like us, but the Muslims won't let them. They'll learn about the lack of gay rights, and how women are fighting for equality. They'll be given some useful, if limited information. They'll learn about the situation in their own country too, which is important, no doubt. If only it ended there. But in addition they'll also learn about the diverse grassroots Iranian women's movement through its most characteristic representative, a militantly secular member of the Iranian Communist Workers' Party who lives in London. Freedom is a human right. The Iranian gays and lesbians need to be saved. Their country is backward; let them watch Milk, dubbed into Persian, and learn to do what their brothers and sisters did in the US forty years ago.

            You could have offered something else, something better. You have the capabilities. You have the experience. Tell us something about your world and ours, the world of border crossing and hybridity, where Iranians and Americans are nonetheless far from equal. Tell us it in a language that dissolves clichés. That dances with a joy that augurs an end to the violence of us always telling ourselves how they are. That offers us a world where the self is fulfilled other than through endless consumption. We are weary of such a world! Let us be optimistic. There is a generation - of hyphenated Iranians of various kinds, of Iranians recently migrated blessed with many talents, increasingly aware, active in art and scholarship and activism. Join them! Join them.