Sexy is generally not the first thought that comes to mind when Americans think of Iran, but that might change after seeing Maryam Keshavarz’s Circumstance. Most of our images of Iran are highly deceptive or difficult for us to understand. Many western commentators paint a picture of a nation of anti-western religious fanatics trying to get their hands on an atom bomb. Conversely, the Iranian films that are released in the USA often cloak their messages in metaphor and allegory in order to slip past Iran’s draconian censors.
Along with simply being a fantastic movie, Circumstance offers a fascinating look at the real lives of young Iranians trying to be free in a country ruled by a repressive theocracy. Keshavarz’s powerful drama about two young lesbians who just want to love each other takes us into a world of private passions, underground youth culture and secret parties fueled by alcohol. It is a life that would be familiar to many young Americans if it wasn’t for the omnipresent threat of arrest by the government’s feared Morality Police.
Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri) and Shireen (Sarah Kazemy) are best friends, and students in the same all-girls school. Atafeh’s family is wealthy and cosmopolitan. Her father is a successful businessman and her mother is a surgeon. Shireen lives with her uncle because her parents, both university professors, have been executed for “anti-government activities.” Both families have raised their children in a liberal atmosphere that celebrates both Western and Persian culture. Their open attitudes are reflected in the diverse music featured in the film, ranging from Bach sonatas and traditional Persian songs to Le Tigre and the pop song “Total Eclipse of the Heart.”
As Atafeh and Shireen grow closer, their friendship deepens, and they become lovers. Heady with the excitement of first love, they think little of the potential danger of discovery. Their situation grows complicated when Mehran, Atafeh’s brother, and a former drug addict, turns to religion in an attempt to find meaning in his life. Driven by a mixture of newfound fanaticism and surreptitious attraction to Shireen, Mehran begins watching the young lovers, setting events in motion that will forever change all of their lives.
Director Maryam Keshavarz grew up in both the United States and Iran. Her film is powered by both an insider’s knowledge and an émigré’s expanded perspective. She avoided censorship by shooting her film clandestinely in Beirut, Lebanon, with an all-Iranian cast.
One of the year’s best movies, Circumstance is an intimate story of two women and their families. Keshavarz subtly evokes the sensual private space that Atafeh and Shireen impulsively create to express their feelings towards each other, which mirrors the cultured world that their parents have tried to preserve. However, Keshavarz also captures the moments where the personal becomes political, where people’s individual choices suddenly puts them in direct conflict with the powers that be. Circumstance is an ambitious work that beautifully reveals the complex social, sexual, and emotional currents that shape all of our lives.