Nobody is more surprised that Nikohl Boosheri is starring in a movie set in Iran than she is. The 23-year-old Vancouver-based actor, who portrays rebellious Iranian teen Atafeh in writer-director Maryam Keshavarz’s debut feature-length film, Circumstance, was planning on being a theatre actor after she got hooked on drama classes at Coquitlam’s Gleneagle Secondary School.
“To be completely honest, I was always sort of afraid of the camera,” Boosheri tells the Georgia Straight when reached by phone. “Our drama class was really theatre-based. We didn’t do any on-camera work, so I never really had any aspirations to get involved in film.”
That all changed, however, after Boosheri graduated from high school (with 26 plays under her belt). She was performing in Delinquent Theatre’s Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead at the Havana while also enrolled in Simon Fraser University’s theatre program when a talent scout spotted her on-stage.
“I guess it’s kind of that fairy-tale story where she [the scout] approached me and wanted to represent me, and the first thing that I went [to audition] for was Circumstance,” she says.
However, it wasn’t just Boosheri’s dedication to the theatre that made her think twice about auditioning for a Farsi-language film. The actor was born to Iranian parents in Pakistan and immigrated to Canada when she was a toddler. She had never left North America until filming Circumstance in Beirut, Lebanon, and didn’t feel all that connected to her Iranian roots.
“It was always very difficult for me to identify myself as an Iranian because I felt very Canadian,” she says. “But when I read the script, it was the first time I was able to see myself as an Iranian character. Before this, I didn’t watch Iranian movies and I didn’t listen to Iranian music. This was kind of a cultural awakening for me.”
Boosheri was cast as Atafeh, a wealthy Tehran-based student who struggles to hide her burgeoning sexuality toward her best friend (Sarah Kazemy). Meanwhile, Atafeh’s brother has become increasingly enthralled with Islamic fundamentalism and begins to spy on his own family.
Boosheri needed to perfect her Farsi accent. “Farsi is not me or Sarah’s first language. We obviously grew up with it, but we had accents. She’s from France, so she had a French accent,” Boosheri says, “and I had a Canadian accent, so we worked with a coach for a year before we even started filming.” “It was really hard to find a coach because they had to be under 30 [years old] and be comfortable with the material, and be discreet and be familiar with that generation.”
Boosheri also began to do her own research on the underground culture of Iranian youth, mainly by talking to family members and watching YouTube videos.
“I found this BBC piece where they go into Iran and got introduced to pieces of the underground scene. They got to go to a studio with a girl rapping and got taken to a bazaar where they saw kids with purple mohawks and piercings in their ears, and that was very educational,” she says. “With social media nowadays, it was very easy. I have friends who go to Iran all the time. All I have to do is look at their Facebook albums and I see Iranians around a pool, with a DJ, drinking alcohol, and it’s like ‘Wow’.
“I also watched movies, watched my grandmother’s Iranian satellite, and listened to music. It was my life for a good 10 months.”
In the movie, Boosheri’s research into this forbidden world translates into scenes of teens drinking and dancing at clubs to the sounds of Iranian hip-hop music, experimenting with drugs and sex, and even dubbing banned American films like Milk (Gus Van Sant’s 2008 biopic starring Sean Penn as gay-rights activist Harvey Milk) into Farsi. Notably, none of these scenes were in the script that filmmaker Keshavarz sent to the Lebanese government in order to get a filming permit.
“The film was not in Farsi; it had nothing to do with Iran; it had nothing to do with sex; and it had nothing to do with politics,” Boosheri says about the dummy script.
When the movie was finally approved and 24 days of filming commenced at the end of 2009, Boosheri says that there was still a sense of danger on the set.
“We had visits from—you never really knew who they were—police and military, and had to improvise on-set and get through that,” she says. “If our film was confiscated, we were screwed, so we were very cautious. We weren’t telling people in the city why we were there. We were under the guise of students at the American University of Beirut. It was very undercover.”
Although Boosheri says that she experienced a kind of culture shock while making Circumstance, she had no problem connecting to her character.
“I saw so much of herself in me, and so much of me in her. I felt like I already knew her as soon as I read the script,” Boosheri says. “She is what I was when I was 16 years old, and she is what I’d imagine I would be if I was growing up in Iran under those circumstances.
“Obviously there are differences between us. I grew up here and not in Iran, but even growing up in an Iranian family, you can connect to those sides of feeling repressed and feeling like you can’t fully express yourself, so rebelling. I think any teenager can relate to that.”
Boosheri says that in some ways wanting to be an actor was considered a form of rebellion to her parents, even though she describes them as being “pretty open-minded”, having lived in Canada for more than two decades.
“My father, he’s always been quite supportive, but I grew up with my mother, so she was the one who really needed to support me,” she says. “It was hard for her at the beginning because acting is not really a respected profession in Middle Eastern culture. So she was like, ‘Go get a real job. This can be a hobby.’ So it was difficult. It was a source of many arguments.”
Still, Boosheri says that her mother drove her to auditions when she was younger and saw her in every play—including The Dark at the 2010 Vancouver International Fringe Festival, the first stage production that Boosheri performed in after returning from Beirut. When Circumstance screened at the 2011 Vancouver International Film Festival, her entire family was there in attendance.
“It’s nice for them to finally see something tangible in all the work I’ve been doing. There are maybe a few family members that are a little more traditional and haven’t seen the film yet—and I hope that they don’t—but the people that really count have seen the film, and they may not agree with everything, but they’ve been very supportive.”
Boosheri will participate in Q & A sessions following the 7:05 p.m. screenings at the Fifth Avenue Cinemas on Friday and Saturday (October 28 and 29). She is quick to talk about audience reactions and the conversations she has had with people.
“This year has been incredible because we have Chinese women, Israeli women, Christian men—people from all backgrounds—coming up to me and sharing their own stories,” she says. “For me, it’s like: ‘Really, you related to this film?’ But they found something, whether it was the dad or the relationship between the two girls, falling in love with your best friend when you’re young, or just connecting to Atafeh and her decision.”
Although the film certainly has a universal message, for Boosheri the outcome has been much more personal.
“I came back home playing Iranian music and my mom was like, ‘Who are you? What happened to you there?’ ” she says with a laugh. “I didn’t really have that connection to my background, but this [movie] kind of brought it to me and helped me connect to that side of myself.”
Watch the trailer for Circumstance.