Iman Qureshi reviews Circumstance, screened during 2012 London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, and hails its director for subtly depicting complexities and contradictions of contemporary Iranian society
"From an early age, I have been a translator of culture: East for West, and West for East," writes Maryam Keshavarz, director, producer and writer of Circumstance. She writes of how she grew up with Iranians burning American flags on one side of her existence, while in New York her brother was attacked by a gang who accused him of being a 'fucking terrorist'. "This was in 1981", she clarifies.
In a world where battle lines of identity and ideology are so exclusively drawn, no man's land is probably a scary place to stand. Yet, it's also most likely to provide the best vantage point.
Keshavarz is careful not to present the relationship between the girls as a result of the segregated nature of society
Circumstance positions itself bravely in the crossfire, reporting on all fronts. The film focuses on a headstrong hedonistic teenage girl Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri), whose liberal wealthy family is at odds with the conservative government of Iran. Atafeh's best friend Shireen (Sarah Kazemy), who lives with her uncle following the execution of her revolutionary professorial parents, represents the less wealthy, less liberal strata of society. The two girls live closeted double lives involving parties, drugs, alcohol and sex, all behind locked doors - a mode of living employed by many young men and women in Iran.
Added to the mixture is Atafeh's older brother Mehran (Reza Sixo Safai), an ex-drug addict and classical musician who finds solace in religion.
Friendship between the girls gradually develops into a sexual relationship - it is tenderly and beautifully drawn, with Keshavarz showing no fear in depicting its sexual nature. She is also careful not to present it as a result of the segregated nature of society. Atafeh has a reputation amongst boys who consider her a slut, while Shireen is shown kissing boys, albeit with a kind of disgusted curiosity and so there is no room left for penis promulgators to insinuate that the two girls just need a good ol' fashioned heterosexual bonk that is hard to come by in such a conservative society. Instead, they are together because they desire each other and are very much in love.
The film's central conflict arises when Mehran finds himself attracted to Shireen too. He hides cameras around the house and records the girls clandestinely. In this way, the film works on both literal and figurative levels - a rare achievement. Mehran is an entirely convincing character; it is plausible when, as a recovering addict, he becomes almost obsessively religious, replacing one addiction with another. He is also, however, the literal and metaphorical figure of 'big brother' as he insidiously plants cameras around the house and monitors the actions of his family.
Masculine insecurity, anxiety and desire for power is evident as the patriarchal power of both the state and within families is shown to depend on the curtailment and control of women
Surveillance of people's private, and particularly sexual, lives is of course a key mode of control employed by the state; the film uses one family as a kind of microcosm for the state of Iran, exploring how people and love and relationships are corrupted as a result of the state's restrictions and constant surveillance. The connection between Mehran and the state is cleverly drawn by mimicking the style of video surveillance in several instances: in the beginning it seems to be arbitrarily placed cameras in the street, but this sort of video footage soon moves from this public space into the private space of Atafeh's home.
The state's - and Mehran's - monitoring of women's sex and sexuality is particularly interesting. Mehran eventually blackmails Shireen into marrying him and becomes a controlling, possessive patriarch. Masculine insecurity, anxiety and desire for power is evident here as the film implies that the patriarchal power of both the state and within families depends on the curtailment and control of women. This theme is expounded as the girls are arrested by religious police for indecency and thoroughly examined and tortured to ensure their morality is intact.
The film also depicts acts of sexual harassment and abuse that women are subject to and reveals the double standard around sexuality when it comes to gender. A taxi driver comes on to Shireen and when she resists, he accuses her of being a prostitute. After eventually locking her in, he forces her to give him her foot: it's all he needs to get off. Keshavarz makes it a point to suggest that there is certain pathos in the man's actions. Although our greatest sympathies obviously lie with the abused Shireen, we are told that men also are, albeit to a lesser extent, victims of the state's sexual oppression.
The generational difference in the film is also interesting, with Atafeh's parents being the most liberal people depicted. Keshavarz belies and contextualises a common misconception that the parents of an Iranian girl would be conservative. She reminds us that the revolution Atafeh's parents' generation started was originally a liberal one, but it took a turn for the religious.
Class, too, is something that's subtly dealt with. Atafeh's parents are able to buy her out of sticky situations, while Shireen is blackmailed and coerced into marrying the insidious Mehran.
The film is a delicate lattice which artfully pieces together the image of a society wrought with complexities and contradictions
It's interesting how the wider world seeps into the lives of these girls, particularly in the form of music or film. They dance raucously and freely to Bonnie Tyler's 'Total Eclipse of the Heart', while studying Beethoven, and attempt to dub the film Milk into Farsi. As a result, there is nothing homogenous about Keshavarz's Iran - despite the greatest efforts of the authorities.
The country represented in the film begins with the standard assumed images of Iran, as the first scene shows the girls lined up in uniform hijab. However, this stolid public veneer is soon penetrated as we go beneath this surface to get to the many complexities of Iran that are not conveyed by the media.
The film is therefore a delicate lattice which artfully pieces together the image of a society wrought with complexities and contradictions. The cinematography is beautiful, the subject matter bold, the script tactful and multifaceted, the plot well-fuelled, the politics fiery and the performances gripping. While some might be put off by the end, where the malevolent patriarch Mehran is shown as deserving a modicum of sympathy, it is in keeping with the vision of the film. Keshavarz has no desire to demonise anyone: in such an oppressive state, everybody is a victim. Yes, even its executors.
UK distribution update (8 May 2012): Thanks to Peccadillo Pictures, Circumstance wil be released in the UK cinemas on 29 June 2012