Circumstance (opening today in Los Angeles and New York). Maryam Keshavarz's sensual look at two girls from opposite sides of the tracks who fall in love shines a more revealing light than ever before on Iranian culture and politics. Not surprisingly, GLBT people bear the brunt of the current regime's repressive tactics, and can even be put to death.
In Circumstance, Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri), who comes from a wealthy family, meets lower class, orphaned Shireen (Sarah Kazmy) at an underground dance party in Tehran (the film was shot in Lebanon). Despite the constant threats of surveillance and raids by Iran's Morality Police, the girls and their teen/young adult friends can't resist the time-honored temptations to dance, drink, try drugs and have sex. The biggest surprise to Shireen and Atafeh is their unexpected, mutual attraction to each other.
Naturally, they know to keep their relationship a secret. It becomes more difficult to do so once Atafeh's brother (Reza Sixo Safai) returns home from prison. Having embraced extremist religious and political views while incarcerated, he increasingly forces his conservative expectations on his family and threatens to uncover the forbidden love between Shireen and his sister.
Circumstance has swept the major awards at many of this year's film festivals, including Sundance, New Directors/New Films (a.k.a. Newfest) and Outfest, and Boosheri was honored with Outfest's Best Actress award for her film debut as the conflicted Atafeh. While I didn't find much new in the film's girl-girl romantic dynamics, it's setting and social-political commentary are certainly above the norm. Writer-director Keshavarz, who is Iranian herself, structures and frames her story beautifully, with scenes gradually moving from open and airy settings to tighter, more oppressive settings and camera shots. The performances from the mix of experienced and neophyte actors are uniformly excellent.
In an online chat with critics, Keshavarz related the many risks that she, her cast and crew members took in making the film. "I had serious discussions with the actors that we likely couldn't go back to Iran after making the film," she wrote. "Even shooting in a liberal country, like Lebanon, was still difficult; it is still illegal to be gay there." Keshavarz has been thrilled, however, with the "amazing," positive response Circumstance has received from GLBT audiences in the US as well as from younger Middle Eastern immigrants who have seen it.
While homosexuality remains a criminal offense in many Middle Eastern countries and other parts of the world, there is hope to be found in Circumstance. As history has shown — and can currently be seen in Libya and other former dictatorships — the more repressive/oppressive the environment, the more emboldened the oppressed become. This is true of both political and religious structures. Shireen and Atafeh are our latest cinematic heroines in the GLBT community's growing call for acceptance and justice.
Reverend's Rating: B+
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Blade California.