This charming yet provocative film is the first feature length fiction from Maryam Keshavarz; having produced documentaries previously and coming from an academic, cross cultural background, this is her attempt at exploring love, sexuality and cultural identity through film. But don’t let that put you off- this is a great piece of work from a director and cast that we can hopefully expect to see a lot more of in the future.
Films like Circumstance make me bemoan the fact that good quality dramas are almost always pushed to the sidelines and rarely seen outside of festivals if they deal, particularly in a challenging way, with LGBT issues. Though it may be unlikely to become a huge commercial success, it should certainly enjoy a run at art-house cinemas and be opened up to a much wider audience. It premiered in America at Sundance in January of last year where it won the audience award and has slowly picked up momentum on the festival circuit in the mean time. It appears at the BFI LLGFF as a centrepiece film- and rightly so.
Although the film is somewhat centered around the budding romantic and sexual relationship of two young Iranian women from very different backgrounds, it as much about the family unit and dealing with a kind of repression and prejudice that will no doubt feel alien to most Western audiences. Afateh comes from a very wealthy, liberal Iranian household where life as a young woman is comfortable and, for the most part relatively easy. Shireen on the other hand is from a much more traditional family, she is forced into the ‘duties’ of a typical Iranian woman and painstakingly sits through visits with suitors as her uncle is determined to marry her off. Afateh offers her a life with much more freedom, excitement and enjoyment and it isn’t long before the relationship between the two of them develops into more than friendship. Of course, in a land where women are seen as the inferior sex and have very little rights, they can never be open and free in their love for one another as long as they remain there. Things are complicated further when Afateh’s brother Mehran having recently returned from rehab replacing drug addiction for Islamic fundamentalism, begins to eye Shireen as his bride.
Mehrans character is a very interesting one, even if it spirals often into the realm of the absurd; he enlists himself with the morality police-charged with enforcing the (ludicrously) strict social laws on the people of Iran- and secretly plants cameras around the home to spy on his godless family. Keshavarz has said that she hopes viewers will ‘have as much sympathy for the jailer as they do for the incarcerated’ – but it is difficult to do that with Mehran when his character has no redeeming qualities. He represents the repressive regime of Iran, infiltrating the lives of his family until they too become affected by his way of thinking, just as fundamentalist ideologies infiltrate and permeate many middle eastern societies- it makes little difference whether you choose to embrace them or not, they will still hold power over your life.
The dramatic core of the story is no doubt enhanced by the aesthetic beauty of the central characters and the moments when the simmering sexual tension between them is palpable. Both actresses make their film debut for Circumstance and step confidently into big old boots to create characters of amazing complexity and engage the audience from start to finish.
The film made me want to reach out to women like Shireen and reinforced my resentment of misogynistic repressive societies, particularly in that part of the world. Given that the largest audience for the film will undoubtedly be a Western one (Circumstance would never get a legal release in Iran) , could that have been part of Keshavarz’s intentions? Ultimately I think the focus is less on the restrictive limitations placed on the characters and more about the way in which some manage to side-step and find ways around them, whereas others become trapped by them. The film is commenting on the multi-layered lifestyle of its characters; here we see females shed their hijabs and drab clothing to reveal slinky party dresses at underground (and surely illegal) parties and clubs. We see gay men sneaking through the back of barbers shops into a secret cave of films and books from other parts of the world that they have no access to elsewhere. We are given a glimpse into how, beneath the surface, those under repression deal with the circumstances they are faced with. The ending is a frustrating one, but it is strangely optimistic, it shows that Afateh has found a glimmer of hope in a desperate world and is clinging onto it- determined to follow it to find her own freedom.
To anybody keen to see a queer coming of age story that sits far outside the familiar I would recommend Circumstance- catch it while you can at the BFI LLGFF.
Circumstance is also avaliable on DVD for those in the US.