Interview with Reza Sixo Safai:
I’m excited and grateful that Reza has so kindly agreed to answer some questions about his role in the film Circumstance, a 2011 independent film directed by Maryam Keshavarz exploring homosexuality in modern Iran.
SM: Reza, your character, Mehran, was terrifying. How did you feel about playing the role of such a controlling man, and why was it important to you to portray this side of the family dynamic?
RS: When I first read the script, I had the rare experience of feeling enraptured with the story. I loved each element and considered the script as a whole piece rather than the individual role of Mehran. It was a hard decision to make, but this is such an important story to tell that I wanted to be a part of it. It’s not easy having family in Iran and being unable to return to see them.
I do not see Mehran as a “bad guy.” I saw his life and experiences paralleled with the girls’, because he is also so trapped and tortured. He’s a prisoner in his own prison; he just took a different route. A large percentage of the population in Tehran is youth. And I thought, wow, there are all these incredible, creative, talented young people without opportunity. Mehran embodies this for me—he has no options. The director said that I was cast in this role because I was the first actor to read Mehran’s part as a man with vulnerability. After seeing the film, women have approached me with strong opinions feeling as though they aren’t allowed to hate Mehran freely because he too has a breakdown. He too is a conflicted human being. I don’t really think it’s about turning to religion, but rather obtaining voice and power. In a theocracy you gain power through religious roles. As part of a love triangle and as an addict, Mehran is a multidimensional character who confronts an internal struggle.
SM: I was very appreciative that this movie was so accurate, and the most uncomfortable scene for me was the spousal rape. How did you prepare for that scene? What emotional impact did it have on you?
RS: This was a hard scene, but all the film’s moments lead up to this moment—to be in that situation and to have a revelation equals a lot of emotion. I think Mehran loves Shireen, it may be an obsession, and not my own personal version of love, but he learns to love her through watching his sister. Part of this process for him is confronting her with a lie.
Behind that kind of violent anger is fear. Tapping into people’s biggest fears of maybe I’m not enough or of not being seen, brings up a lot of emotion. This scene was very draining, and not in the sense of being tired, but it was a difficult and dark place to go. The scene starts out violent, but there is a price to be paid for that.
One of the most incredible aspects of this film for me is its duality. How do you navigate this world? How do you navigate the unsaid? The secrets? All families have secrets, but in repressive environments the stakes are high. It was important to the director to have ambiguity, and that indefinable “space between.” The beauty of this film is that so many questions remain unanswered. I don’t think we know if Shireen’s shift during this scene is for self-preservation or because a part of her loved him. I don’t think you can separate all the elements. It’s amazing in this way that the power came to her at that moment. We are all influenced by society, but in the moment, it’s about the individual’s decision.
I like that there are so many unanswered questions. Does she stay? Does she leave? What happens?
SM: Why is it important to you as a man to be involved in a project like this? Did you have any goals going into the project? Do you have different goals now that the film has been released with such success? Most of us here at So to Speak are writers. As writers, academics, and artists, how can we best support and get involved with projects like these? How can we be most helpful to brave individuals such as yourself?
RS: I think our strong reactions to this film say something about ourselves. To some this movie is a lesbian film, to others it’s about freedom, or family, or youth. What’s important is to see the film and open up the dialogue. What’s really cool is that Americans get to see a culture they most likely have never seen before.
It’s funny; people always assume a back-story. When people saw me at the screening, they didn’t think I could speak any English, yet we won the audience award. The translation in this film is really good.
The question is: what do we do with a film like this? It’s an interesting dilemma. We are a movie that doesn’t have a home. We are banned from Iran, and we mostly filmed in Lebanon on the down low. This movie is like an orphaned child. This was a collaboration of dual citizens and people from different parts of the Arab world. This is not a typical film in that it is truly an international production that has been financed by many countries and places.
My goal was to do the best possible job that I could. I have no idea if this film would have a life or turn out. It’s really a director’s medium, so as an actor you take a leap of faith. I also really believed in this director (Maryam Keshavarz). It’s amazing that the film has had incredible success. To be supportive of this project, see the film and talk about it. I was at this screening in San Fransico, a social action reach out, and what I thought was incredible was that the audience was made up of LGBT activists, political members, “regular” Americans, and Iranian families. This film brings incredibly diverse groups of people together.
SM: As “The Huffington Post’s” Natalie Pace says, “Go for the sex, drugs, beautiful women and rock ‘n roll. Go for the buzz. Go to see America’s next top director/writer, Maryam Keshavarz. Go to start a movement to nominate Reza Sixo Safai, who deserves to be a frontrunner for Best Supporting Actor, for an Oscar. No matter what gets you to the theater to see this limited release, independent film, and which scene makes you squirm in your seat, you will come away with a deeper awareness and appreciation for the men and women of Iran, who live far away from the camera’s eye and far beyond the understanding of so many Americans.”
Maryam Keshavarz’s film Circumstance is beautiful, brave, and devastating. Sexy, violent, magical, and so very real, the socio-political landscape of Iran’s Tehran is layered with compelling personal narratives. Through the rhythmic sounds of Farsi, the imagined sex clubs, and the beat of underground parties, this film explores questions of integrity, character, and loyalty and shakes them till they break. For me, as a young woman who has studied and traveled in the Middle East, this film’s most compelling argument is tied to notions of surveillance.
The morality police, who seem self-appointed and always watching, and the ways in which their surveillance and drug addiction are compared and paralleled is both brilliant and horrifying. Highlighting the ways in which humans in their most vulnerable states reach out for comfort is the narrative glue that holds this story together. The ways liberal families and ideas are masked and protected like the most valued secrets, the graphic and sensual acts of love, and also of hate, and the constantly shifting family dynamic that mimics a constantly shifting political presence are all clearly portrayed by stunning performances by three young actors: Reza Sixo Safai (Mehran), Nikohl Boosheri (Atafeh), and Sarah Kazemy (Shireen).
At the heart of this film is a star-crossed love story. Atafeh and Shireen are two young women in love, trying to navigate the boundaries of what is possible and realistic. Both women are betrayed by Atafeh’s brother, who then blackmails Shireen into marriage. Maybe most importantly, this film has dozens of truly memorable scenes and imagery. Almost poem-like in its construction, Circumstance’s shifting landscapes from wealthy home, to school, to city, to beaches and water, to underground night life, to hiking the mountains, to undeveloped land overlooking the city, and back to confines of “home,” provides just the right momentum for appropriate disorientation.
For me, this movie is also very much about escape. Escape from drugs, escape from societal expectation, from laws, from what is deemed right, from marriage, from family, and from self. After I spent a summer studying in Dubai in 2006, I was a bit heartbroken, although understood why Dubai, U.A.E. is portrayed as somewhat of a “promised land,” a place of freedom where anything is possible. When in fact, this (to me) seems such a small step towards “freedom,” which of course calls into question our most likely very different contextual definitions of freedom. At the beach, the father turns to his family and says in regards to swimming, “one day we can all go in together.”
There is a graphic scene of spousal rape, and many other other scenes of two women desperately trying to find and connect with each other physically and emotionally. There is a scene at Shireen and Mehran’s wedding party where the roles of wife are clearly defined by Mehran when he says to his father in regards to the women singing in public (which is actually the privacy of their own home): “You control your daughter; I’ll control my wife.” The symbolism of a prodigal son and prayer; the objects of a carefully passed paper swan, surveillance cameras and technology; and the motifs of rehabilitation, religion, and rebirth all add up to a visually stunning, orgasmic, heartbreaking experience.
I say this project is brave because it is groundbreaking. The people who made this film and participated in its creation are incredibly courageous and cannot return to Iran. In fact, most of the film was shot in Lebanon. I am in awe of, and so very grateful to be able to support such amazing human beings and projects, and I hope you will join me in seeing this film and making it a part of our academic and social dialogue.
As my friends and I walked out of the dark theater and onto the bright streets of Arlington, Virginia after seeing the film, I asked if we could all hold hands and take a moment to be grateful that we lived in a place where we could not only openly see this movie and discuss it in public, but also openly express our love for each other however we may choose to do so. With tears, and also laughter, and perhaps only for a few moments, we were a circle of women holding each other up.