Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had better now watch Circumstance, as he’s apparently convinced there are no gay people in Iran (although the fact his regime has arrested and even executed quite a few would rather undermine that position). Although he does watch the film, he can probably unfairly claim it’s all down Western influence and young people wanting that pesky thing called freedom.
Atafeh and Shireen are two teenage Iranian girls whose friendship extends into a romance and sexual relationship. They secretly frequent underground parties, flirt, drink and dream about being able to go somewhere they can do all these things openly and without censure. The first half of the film delves into this side of Iranian culture and young people straining against the confines of a system that wants to supress them, particularly if you’re a woman and/or gay.
The second half moves into slightly different territory as Atafeh’s ex-drug addict brother Mehran begin to become more central to proceedings. Since his wild days he’s dedicated himself to Islam and become increasingly extreme and supportive of the controlling aspects of the Iranian regime, even going as far as installing cameras to spy on his family. As Mehran makes moves to wed Shireen – whose family is keen to marry her off – the shackles of life in an oppressive, authoritarian system begin to close in on the girls. It’s not all misery though, as there are some nice moments of humour, including the girls and their gay friends deciding to try and make a statement about human rights by translating Gus Van Sant’s Milk into Persian for an Iranian audience.
Circumstance is a brave and complex film from first-time writer/director Maryam Keshavarz, who was born in NYC but raised in both the US and Iran. It’s a film that’s full of nice touches and has a bold often involving story to tell. It does have a few problems though. Keshavarz wants to cover a lot of thematic ground, such as the place of women in Iran, homosexuality, the clash between freedom and religion, the oppression felt from the sense of being watched and various other things.
However the script sometimes has difficulty wrangling all these things and particularly in the second half, things get a bit messy as it stretches in directions that don’t feel quite in keeping with what’s gone before. You can tell why Keshavarz wanted to keep these things, as individually they are quite interesting and reflect aspects of the involved and fairly deep things she wants to say, but it does mean the movie is occasionally unwieldy and feels closer to melodrama than perhaps it should.
Some have also criticised the movie for perpetuating stereotypes about Iran and the oppression of women and gay people in the country. To be honest I can’t tell you whether Circumstance is true to what it’s like to grow up in Iran, but it doesn’t feel like it’s selling you something completely fake. Indeed, there’s a strong sense of people being the same wherever they come from, with the difference largely down to the society they have to exist within.
Overall Verdict: An interesting debut from writer/director Maryam Keshavarz exploring all sorts of ideas about life in Iran, and trying to find a sense of freedom and individuality in a controlling society.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac