Published Oct 06, 2011Maryam Keshavarz's Circumstance is a project that's gotten the NYC-based director banned from her homeland of Iran. Her film, about the romantic relationship between two 16-year-old women struggling to be together in a society that deems their love illegal, is so controversial in Iran that Keshavarz's feature – her first – had to be filmed in Lebanon.
Now, after winning the Audience Award at this year's Sundance Film Festival, Circumstance is adding to the repertoire of contemporary Iranian cinema, providing a deft commentary on the country's repressive social conditions.
Featuring first-time actors Nikohl Boosheri and Sarah Kazemy, the film follows Atafeh (Boosheri), the daughter of a rich, liberal family, and Shireen (Kazemy), the orphan of two murdered political dissidents. After meeting at school, the free-spirited Atafeh introduces her friend to the illicit underground world of Tehran's youth, where religious dress is abandoned for flimsy club gear and pop music blasts freely in crowded apartments. As the pair grow closer, it's clear there's a connection much deeper than friendship between them.
But when Atafeh's brother, Mehran (Reza Sixo Safai,) returns from drug rehab and looks to Islam to absolve his sins, her family's secularism is threatened by his growing religious fundamentalism and involvement with Tehran's Morality Police. As Atafeh's relationship with Shireen deepens, Mehran's maniacal surveillance of his family, and his own interest in Shireen, threatens to separate the lovers for good.
Keshavarz's film, distilled in a Western style that reveals the director's American upbringing, but told with a cultural license that validates her characters, is as much about its troubled fundamentalist as it is about Atafeh and Shireen. Though Keshavarz's realizing of the women's relationship is sultry, even erotic when the pair fantasize about trysts in Dubai, there's little attention paid to why exactly Atafeh and Shireen are drawn to one another in the first place. The forbidden romance may excite Western audiences, but there's little substantiating the actual connection between the two-dimensional characters.
Mehran's role in infiltrating his family, however, is where Keshavarz succeeds in showing us the lengths fundamentalists will go to enforce moral and religious standards in Iran, ultimately anchoring Circumstance in a pressing reality. As the brother sits with headphones pressed against his ears, peering into footage from surveillance cameras he's placed around his home, we're reminded of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's The Lives of Others, which depicted a similar social climate in East Berlin.
Despite its lukewarm love story, Circumstance plays an important role in vouching for the repression faced by various social groups in Iran, even providing insights about the fundamentalists enforcing the rules. Crucially, Keshavarz's film questions what one has left to do when realities are dictated by unyielding circumstances. (Mongrel Media)