Iranian-American writer-director Maryam Keshavarz has created a beautiful Persian-language film that is as much Iranian as it is American. Circumstance feels familiar, and at the same time, foreign. Some could accuse Keshavarz of pandering to a Western audience because the film was obviously made with us in mind, but there’s something else at work here.
Circumstance straddles the line between Iranian and American youth culture so delicately that when we are shown hip underground clubs or clandestine parties, we feel like we can’t be in modern-day Tehran. And due to obvious and unfortunate restrictions, we are not — Circumstance had to be filmed in Lebanon, and even there discretion was paramount to the film’s survival due to the same-sex subject matter between the two lead characters Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri) and Shireen (Sarah Kazemy).
They are best friends who, like many sixteen-year-olds, test the strength of their bond while exploring their intimacy and desire for each other.
Not only is this a well-told story, but it’s a story that gives us an insider’s look at a culture and a youth population that rarely gets such far-reaching exposure. Thanks to the Milwaukee LGBT Film Fest’s latest monthly screening, we here in Brew City got to see the film before it’s released in the U.S. next month. As of right now, there isn’t a Milwaukee venue secured to show it, however the film screens in Chicago and Madison during the month of September.
Circumstance is worth the drive, if only for the privileged look into the surprisingly sexy underground of Iranian youth culture.
This film oozes sex. The deep blues and reds that wash over entire scenes, the flashing lights that hypnotize club goers and pulsing dance beats that drive the film’s soundtrack create a lush and sensual atmosphere of secrecy and transgression, of averted glances and suppressed longings.
It’s creative, ambitious and idealistic, as evidenced by Atafeh, Shireen and two friends’ attempt to dub Milk and Sex and the City for Persian audiences (certainly the most hilarious scene in the film), and their desire to flood the market with similar movies in order to “start a dialogue” and “foster non-violent protests in the streets.” It doesn’t hurt that both Atafeh and Shireen belong to wealthy families, whose money creates a space in which they can rebel without serious consequences.
Keshavarz is careful, however, to not simply portray the problem as systematic. It is how individuals use the religious and law enforcement systems that creates rifts and animosity between characters.
Atafeh’s brother Mehran, a recovering drug addict, tries to reintegrate himself into respectable society when he returns from jail and (not surprisingly) finds the easiest way is through religion. His family’s money and notoriety allow him to get a job with the Morality Police, and soon the entire house is filled with surveillance cameras operated by Mehran, who chooses to police others in order to assert his own undeserved religious and moral superiority.
Keshavarz is not showing us that Iran is necessarily a repressive place, but that what makes Iran so stifling is how individuals use these systems or are manipulated by them. Within the film, these systems are not malicious until they are used maliciously.
The film is definitely made for a Western audience. The jokes about Sean Penn and a duet to the tune of “Total Eclipse of the Heart” are surely meant for American viewers, but Keshavarz still challenges the Western audience by questioning our complacency in understanding the Middle East or Islamic cultures as being wholly repressive and tyrannical. The brazen indulgence and materialistic opulence are in deliberate juxtaposition to the Iran we have in our minds as a place where fear reigns and religious doctrine dictates every aspect of existence. Keshavarz is showing us how multi-faceted Iran is and how a relationship like Atafeh and Shireen’s could survive there.
Like many things in modern Iran, their desire is acknowledged but remains largely unspoken. Films like Circumstance, however, are like giant megaphones for those that need them, and Keshavarz is certainly shouting.
Circumstance is set to open in select theaters beginning August 26. For more information and screenings, click here. For more information on the Milwaukee LGBT Film and Video Festival’s monthly screenings, click here.