By Andrea Burzynski
NEW YORK (Reuters) - After Iranian-American filmmaker Maryam Keshavarz made" Circumstance," she knew she would might never be able to return to her homeland again, but that hasn't stopped her from telling the story.
The film, which begins playing in U.S. theaters on Friday after a strong debut at this year's Sundance Film Festival, tells of two Iranian teenage girls who fall in love. But they face interference from a brother who joins the religious police and a government that refuses to acknowledge gay people exist.
"I've seen very few films that address women's sexuality -- in Iran, in the Muslim world, at all," Keshavarz told Reuters. "As much as some people are upset about the film, there are other people who are like, 'Finally! Something that's us!'"
The story and characters are fictional but Keshavarz, who wrote and directed the film, said they are based on real-life experiences among her friends.
The key characters in "Circumstance," Atafeh and Shireen, have grown up like many young women in Tehran. As teens, they dream of a life of adventure, art and culture. They buy foreign DVDs, listen to western music, dance at underground clubs and dream of running away. Eventually, they fall for each other.
But standing between them is a society that will not accept who they are rapidly becoming. That society is embodied in Atafeh's older brother, who was once like them but has returned home from drug "rehab" a more conservative and intolerant man.
The movie follows the girls as they explore their feelings for each other and navigate a society filled with peril.
The lesbian subject matter isn't the only controversial aspect of "Circumstance". The film violates many cinematic practices common in Iran and other parts of the Muslim world.
"It didn't adhere to the rules of Iranian cinema, where women have to have their hair covered," Keshavarz said. "We even have sex scenes and nudity in the film".
There is also a scene where Shireen and Atafeh, the two main characters, strip down to their underwear for an illicit swim in the sea. Perhaps the film's most controversial -- and talked about -- scene is a fantasy sequence in which the women imagine themselves in an amorous tryst in a Dubai hotel room.
In Iran, filming certain realities can exact a high price. Jafar Panahi, an internationally celebrated filmmaker, was arrested in March 2010 amid speculation he was making a film critical of Iran's current regime. He was imprisoned and forbidden to make any films or leave Iran for 20 years.
There was never a question of filming in Iran, so Keshavarz engaged in "an extensive search" for the perfect location which she found in Beirut. But even in that city, there came risk. While many gay men and women live in and travel to Beirut, homosexuality remains illegal in Lebanon.
To get government permission to film, Keshavarz removed parts of the script she thought censors may find inflammatory, including anything to do with sexuality or religion. "We shot those scenes anyway. We just didn't submit them," she said.
Lebanese authorities often came on set during filming, which sometimes forced the crew to scuttle production plans and find innovative means of distraction.
Even after shooting was finished, Keshavarz exercised caution by carrying undeveloped film to Jordan, then shipping it to the U.S. for processing.
Her efforts seem to have paid off. "Circumstance" earned the Audience Award at Sundance, as well as several other honors at gay and straight film festivals throughout 2011.
Now "Circumstance" faces a new test -- U.S. audiences and box offices. But even that may not be its biggest challenge. The major hurdle will be when, if ever, it debuts in Tehran.
(Editing by Bob Tourtellotte)