tue 21/05/2024

Circumstance | reviews, news & interviews



Gay love struggles for life in Maryam Keshavarz's Tehran-set feature debut

A veiled view of the world of Tehran - heroines Atafeh and Shireen of 'Circumstance'

Recent Iranian cinema has seen the best of times - and the worst of times. From the 1990s onwards the phenomenon of the "Iranian New Wave" has captured worldwide festival attention, with directors like Abbas Kiarostami, and father and daughter pair Mohsen and Samara Makhmalbaf among the leaders of the list of those who brought a new view of their nation to international eyes.

The worst of times came with the declaration at the end of last year that the country’s professional film body, Tehran’s House of Cinema, was illegal; director Jafar Panahi, banned by the authorities from making films, riposted with his This Is Not a Film, attempting to work around the corners of censorship. He’s since been an honorary – if notably absent – member of many festival juries.

All of which has led to the appearance of a sub-genre, one that could be termed “Iranian cinema in exile”, to which Maryam Keshavarz’s Circumstance is the latest remarkable addition, a prize-winner around the world since its Sundance debut last year. One of its immediate predecessors must be the Venice prize-winner Women Without Men from Shirin Neshat, another woman Iranian director in exile.

Atafeh’s family house is a haven of old Persian culture, where music and art dominate. Wine is served

Circumstance certainly could never have been filmed in Iran, although in real life the director regularly returns there from America, where she is based: Lebanon doubles convincingly for exterior locations, although this is an essentially interior film. It’s central theme, the lesbian relationship between heroines Atafeh and Shireen (Nikohl Boosheri and Sarah Kazemy, both impressive) would certainly be off-limits. No less so their sideline screen antics, with friends, over-voicing Sex and the City, along with a Harvey Milk docu, for local bootleg video releasers.

We may have heard that Northern Tehran is a relatively liberal environment, but it’s a (believable) surprise that it's this much so. Unofficial discos, where sex, drugs and alcohol are all on the menu – the code to get into them is “sewing classes” – co-exist with the religious police carrying out ad-hoc inspections of virginity. It’s a world that Atafeh, a musician and singer, and Shireen dream of escaping, their fantasy first destination being Dubai. There’s plenty of fantasy in Circumstance, as we see scenes that are clearly wish-fulfillments, lusciously shot, rather than reality.

The reality of the central location, Atafeh’s family house, centred around her patriarch father Firouz (Soheil Parsa), is distinctly not typical of the city around it. It’s a haven of old Persian culture, where music and art dominate. Wine is served. Her mother is a surgeon, and her father clearly well-connected, partly from his 1979 revolutionary history. He is also apparently insulated by a considerable fortune, as well as the kind of political connections that enable him to get his daughter and her friends out of police detention, as they drive crazily, under the influence, through Tehran streets. Shireen, by contrast, is an orphan in the charge of her uncle, her parents executed for anti-revolutionary activity.

The other presence in the house is Atafeh’s newly-returned brother Mehran (Reza Sixo Safai, smouldering, pictured right). It’s not quite clear from where he has returned, though the suggestion is rehab, but it's a habit he hasn’t kicked. He’s also put his music behind him, and is increasingly drawn into the religious world of the local mosque, with praying habits that seem more than strange to the household. Further sign of this unbalance comes with the fact that he’s set up surveillance cameras in the main rooms, which brings on a denouement that follows a beautifully-filmed traditional wedding. There’s an excursion to the seaside, too, equally visually attractive, and equally revealing about the gap between traditional, state-sanctioned ways of life, and the personal lives which this privileged family can enjoy in their private spaces.

Director Keshavarz and her cinematographer Brian Rigney Hubbard, as well as designers, relish such visuals throughout. The fantasy scenes are rich, adorned treasures, that do seem to come from another world. The final scene, in which Boosheri’s character, draped in black and with a bribe-achieved passport and ticket, heads for the airport in a taxi, leaving her family and lover behind, brings us back to a stern reality. It’s the fate, that of heading out into a very new, different world, that one feels many of those involved in the production of Circumstance, have experienced for themselves. Powerful, indeed.

  • Circumstance opens today

 Watch the official Circumstance trailer


Unofficial discos, where sex, drugs and alcohol are all on the menu, co-exist with the religious police carrying out ad-hoc inspections on virginity


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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