It’s hard enough being a teenager in Iran these days, especially if you’re fascinated by Western culture, rock ’n’ roll, techno, designer drugs, sex, alcohol, and movies like Milk. If you also happen to be a lesbian, life gets exponentially more difficult. Circumstance, the new film from Iranian-American filmmaker Maryam Keshavarz, is an excellent look at how the modern youth of Iran skirts the boundaries between the religious state and personal freedom, and all the risks that are involved.
The story revolves around the friendship and blossoming romance of two beautiful young women, the privileged and wealthy Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri) and the lower-class Shireen (Sarah Kazemy), who yearn to escape to Dubai. The two walk around Tehran with their heads covered and long gowns, but wearing tank tops and short dresses underneath. In this oppressive and repressed world, it’s the little things that count as notable acts of rebellion—blowing bubbles off of a bridge, going for a swim at the beach where only men are allowed, watching American Idol on TV at home and singing along. But the repercussions can be profound and life-changing if one is caught. Atafeh’s brother, Mehran (Reza Sixo Safai), has returned home after a stint in rehab, and quickly becomes involved with the religious fundamentalists and morality police as he tries to find his footing in the world. As he slowly becomes aware of the nature of the relationship between his sister and Shireen, he sees only one way to put a stop to it, and the consequences are emotionally and politically devastating for the entire family.
As revolution after revolution has swept across the Middle East this spring and summer, with varying degrees of success, Iran seems to be left in the past. The Green Movement was for all intents and purposes crushed by the government in 2009, leaving progressives and forward-thinking youth looking over their shoulders as they find their inspiration.
Apparently, the filmmakers faced similar challenges in making Circumstance. The film was shot in Beirut instead of Iran, even so the crew had to practice quite a bit of secrecy as they went into production. Still, the beautiful cinematography feels expansive, and the locations really work as stand-ins for Iran. The cast is excellent, culled from stage and indie film actors and actresses who speak fluent Farsi and are not afraid to take chances. This completely engrossing film is entertaining and thought-provoking, a worthy addition to the storied history of Iranian cinema that takes on issues of modern-day Iran from both an insider and an outsider perspective.