Seen: On dvd on my tv, rented from netflix.
Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri) and Shireen (Sarah Kazemy)- two female best friends living in Tehran- explore the rebellious youth subculture brewing beneath the surface in present-day Iran, attending wild parties and gradually realizing their attraction to one another. Their secret romance is impeded not only by their country’s strict religious codes, but also by Atafeh’s zealous older brother (Reza Sixo Safai), whose new position with the morality police and intense obsession with Shireen drive a wedge between various family members. In somewhat episodic form, urban Iran’s divisions of class, sex, sexuality, and religion are shown supposedly from the point of view of young insiders, but for logistical reasons the filmmakers are forced outsiders.
Circumstance is an interesting film, not so much for its narrative or technical aspects, but more for its issues of legitimacy. It was written and directed by Iranian-American filmmaker Maryam Keshavarz, who was raised and educated in the US but stayed with family in Iran every year. Most of the actors are not native to Iran, and apparently their speech in this film is heavily accented and the slang is unconvincing (I can’t actually speak to the veracity of that statement, as I don’t speak Farsi at all). It was filmed in Lebanon, and all the people involved in its production can never visit Iran again. So in trying to reveal the secret lives of Iranian teenagers, Keshavarz was unable to give a truly realistic perspective. She drew from anecdotes of family and friends who lived there, and some of her own observations and experiences, but in the end many who would actually know what it’s like to be Atafeh and Shireen’s situation can see the inconsistencies.
As I watched Circumstance I didn’t know much about its authenticity issues; I just thought a story told by a bisexual Iranian-American female filmmaker might offer an interesting viewpoint, plus I’d never seen an Iranian film before (though I recognize now that this is more of an international outing than its final product lets on). Looking at it from my ignorant standpoint, I found it generally enjoyable and engaging, though the narrative structure is disjointed and certain plot points are overly ambiguous or incongruous. I loved the two lead actors, who turned in strong, powerful performances that balanced out the uneven script. I’ve seen some critics lament their romantic scenes as “softcore porn”, but it didn’t bother me. They’re horny teenagers exploring their sexuality, what the hell else would you expect? Steamy hand-holding fantasies?
I don’t want to be like those uninformed critics who took this film at face value and loved its “realistic” portrayal of Iranian gay teen subculture and family dynamics, but I also can’t completely fault it for failing in its verisimilitude because as a movie removed from its context it has merit. And I do believe it contains some truth, or at the very least the truth as Maryam Keshavarz and her collaborators experienced it. I don’t really have enough knowledge speak about these matters anyway, as it is a complicated issue.