Forbidden Love in Iran

By Thomson, Patricia | American Cinematographer, September 2011 | Go to article overview

Forbidden Love in Iran


Thomson, Patricia, American Cinematographer


Set in contemporary Tehran, the drama Circumstance addresses the potentially incendiary topics of sexuality and religion. The Farsi-language feature, which had its premiere at this year's Sundance RIm Festival, centers on school chums Shireen (Sarah Kazemy) and Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri), whose steadfast friendship evolves into a closeted lesbian relationship. Born to liberal, secular Muslims, the young women attend a traditional Iranian school but also frequent Tehran's lively underground. Their relationship is forever altered when Atafeh's brother, Mehran (Reza Sixo Safai), becomes a fundamentalist Muslim and decides to marry Shireen.

"I think any family can deal with a repressive environment as long as they have the sanctuary of the home, but when that safe space is threatened, things become unbearable," says Maryam Keshavarz, who wrote and directed the film. "The family's world starts to fall apart when Mehran becomes part of the repressive environment. It's when the outside starts to seep through that you know it's going to be a tragedy."

When Keshavarz workshopped Circumstance at the 2007 Sundance Directors Lab, she was teamed with cinematographer Brian Rigney Hubbard. Both of them had earned graduate degrees in film at New York University, but they had never met. They hit it off immediately, and for the next two years, as Keshavarz sought financing for the film, they met periodically in New York, where they are both based, to compile a look book, discuss scenes and build a 65page shot list.

During that process, Hubbard noticed that Keshavarz favored a snapshot aesthetic that referenced photographers such as Ryan McGinley and Bill Henson. "The images Maryam liked had a certain sense of naturalism, but the color might be slightly shifted, or the lighting might not provide perfect keylight on the actors - I would refer to it as the look of an 'aestheticized' snapshot," he explains. "McGinley's work has strong but intentionally casual compositions and saturated color, and there's a theatricality to Henson's lighting, even though it's never a perfect key."

The pair always envisioned a 2.40:1 aspect ratio. "The story is about people and their environment, and on a very literal level, I wanted to make sure we had the environment in every dose-up," Hubbard says.

Keshavarz was keen to shoot at practical locations - "I don't believe in studios," she states - and when funding fell into place, in 2009, she scouted Turkey, Egypt and Morocco. "None of those places worked," she says. Then Sundance mentor Atom Egoyan suggested Lebanon. "It's an amazing location," Keshavarz attests. "It's so small you can go from city to mountains to seaside within an hour. And because it has experienced war, there's a mix of old buildings and new construction, which is also true in Tehran."

In order to pass muster with the Lebanese censors, however, Keshavarz had to winnow her 110-page script down to 60 pages. She recalls, "The censor said he liked the film, and I was thinking, What film?!"'

Once Lebanon was chosen, Hubbard lobbied to shoot film. "I'd heard how unstable the electricity is in Beirut," he notes. "Plus, we had concerns about the digital cameras that would be available locally and whether we'd have the necessary tech support. So I said to the producers, 1 know this really great hard drive: film. It has ama2ing resolution.'"

Hubbard tried to obtain a camera capable of shooting 2-perf Super 35mm in Austria, but was stymied by border issues. Producer Karin Chien then suggested shooting Super 16mm. She noted that Gamma, the production's rental house in Beirut, had an Arri 416 and could also supply a set of Arri/Zeiss Ultra Primes and a Cooke 18-1 00mm zoom. "I thought Super 16 could look beautiful, but I was concerned about cropping [to 2.40:1]," says Hubbard. He called his NYU mentor, cinematographer Maryse Alberti, to ask for advice. "Maryse was extremely generous in walking through the issues she faced on The Wrestler [^C Jan.

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