‘Circumstance’ – The Personal, the Political and the Persian

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Written and directed by Maryam Keshavarz

France, USA, Iran, 2012

Coming out of a recent screening of ‘Circumstance’ (in the presence of Maryam Keshavarz, the writer/director) my friend and I, rather wowed, agreed that while heartache is universal, freedom is a privilege, a didactic take somewhat misrepresentative of the teenage same-sex melodrama not devoid of the occasional near-prurient moments of lingerie-on-nubile-flesh or insistent camera frolicking over the sensuousness of central character Shireen’s (Sarah Kazemy) visage. Despite these pre-eminently Western, rather clichéd visual tropes of framing feminine beauty (no doubt informed by the author’s American upbringing), Keshavarz’s feature debut, winner of the 2011 Sundance Audience Award, carries a refreshing, heart-rending sincerity, an unpolished and at times awkward poise befitting the characters beginner status, in life and in love.


Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri) and Shireen are a pair of sixteen-year old Teheran schoolmates who tread a delicate ground of fumbling eroticism superimposed on a sibling-like bond. It so happens that underage same-sex pairing is not exactly the order of the day in present-day Teheran – the eponymous circumstance of the title, the make-or-break sine qua non of Atafeh’s and Shireen’s teenage love.

The film positions the love story as a rather subjective experience, conveniently overlooked and never named by the adults in the story, except for the vehemently destructive, voyeuristic jealousy of Atafeh’s older brother Mehran (Reza Sixo Safai) , a recovering drug addict pathologically enamoured of his sister’s girlfriend. On the other hand, the Teheran in question aims for as much objectivity as possible – although filming of the French-American co-production took place in Beirut for obvious reasons, Keshavarz’s avowed intent was to address and sound authentic to an Iranian audience with first-hand experience of Iran’s underbelly (betting on the film’s underground or online distribution in Iran), as well as the Iranian diaspora from which she and her cast originate. What takes place in Iran under the cover is virtually a society-within-society not unfamiliar to western eyes – ecstasy-enhanced grinding at parties, free-flowing alcohol, all the trappings of youth culture in short – until a snitch at your party summons the dreaded morality police…

The snitch in question happens to be Atafeh’s scheming brother, whose newfound piety is in no small part geared towards cornering Shireen into quasi-forced marriage. Mehran’s orchestrating of Shireen’s release from morality police custody after the two girls’ arrest for pirate dubbing of ‘Sex and the City’ (the most hilarious yet also regime-indicting scene) bifurcates the film from a coming-of-age, teenage rebellion drama into a critique of theocratic hypocrisy stifling private life in Keshavarz’s beloved Iran. And while Atafeh’s privileged background allows room for maneuvre, a bribe obliterating her ‘offence’ – implying that even covert opposition is a preserve of the wealthiest strata of Iranian society – orphaned Shireen, herself the child of dissidents, is left with a choice of prison or arranged marriage, marking the terminus of the two girls’ relatively carefree romance and the descent into (rather grown-up-like) mutual recrimination.

The political persecuting the personal is however not sufficient for the destruction of love, seems to be the author’s thesis: in the question and answer session that followed the screening, Kershavarz pointed out that no bond of family or love could be destroyed from the outside – Ayatollahs notwithstanding – until one of the parties agrees to its severance. In this case, conformity, imposed by circumstances and mediated by Mehran, slowly creeps upon the liberal, westernised Hakimis: Shireen refractorily weds her ‘savior’, the Hakimi father takes up praying, and Atafeh alone is left with a sufficient reserve of the headstrong naivety – a certain idealization of love, a belief in an alternative to the reality that geo-political circumstance inflicts on her, that she will pursue by eloping to Dubai by herself, forsaken by her now-married girlfriend – indispensable to rebellion.

Despite the occasional asperity of acting or inverisimilitude of plot, ‘Circumstance’ has a visceral, unfeigned idealism that posits emotion (or melodrama on a meta-filmic level) as the antithesis of oppression.

Zornitsa Staneva



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