Troubling Circumstance: Film delves into Iranian society, repression

Troubling Circumstance: Film delves into Iranian society, repression

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“Circumstance” is a remarkable, multi-layered film that sensitively depicts the struggles of two teenage lesbians, Atafeh (Nikhol Boosheri) and Shireen (Sarah Kazemy), in contemporary Iran. Bisexual writer/director Maryam Keshavarz has made a perspicacious drama about minority gender roles, focusing in particular on male authority subjugating women, and how oppressed people find — or create — their independence.

The story is based in part on Keshavarz’s own experiences as a teenager. She explained that her family is Persian — “but that’s a political [statement]; I always say Iranian.” In Iran, Keshavarz navigated all the restrictions to attend parties, as Atafeh and Shireen do in the film. “Circumstance” reveals how these teenagers find ways to express themselves sexually and otherwise, while living under state control.

In addition, the film depicts a family dynamic as Atafeh enjoys a privileged life with her parents, Firouz (Sohieil Parsa) and Azar (Nasrin Pakkho). When her brother Mehran (Riza Sixo Safai) returns home, he is battling drug abuse. Mehran soon finds recovery in religion and becomes involved in the secret police.

Keshavarz likened the motivation behind the depiction of family in her film to one of her uncles: “He went to MIT, only to be drafted when he returned to Iran. [He] is kind of like the idealistic character of the father — someone who is so liberal, open-minded and cultured. He’s very caring — typically maternal — but he’s very strong. How does he raise his children in a country that is very much at odds with his own philosophy? It was this idea of how you create a utopia within a [repressive] society.”

The filmmaker, who lives in America, visited Iran regularly every summer until her controversial “Circumstance” (which was shot in Lebanon) prompted her to be banned from Iran. “I’ve always had two passports and never had any restrictions in my travel,” she said. “Before I made this movie, I had the unique privilege to be able to go back and forth. Not anymore.”

In addition, Keshavarz revealed that she has been “threatened from anonymous sources, and been railed against by the government.” However, she also boasted, “I’ve had e-mails from hundreds of folks in Iran who are dying to see the film. I’m pretty happy. I had the freedom to make the film.”

While “Circumstance” will play art houses in America, it will have life underground, on illegal DVD, and will play in Iran via ARTE or BBC satellite. Keshavarz cited an interesting statistic that “Brokeback Mountain” was a huge hit in Iran.

“More people I know in Iran saw that film than [in America]. We understand this idea of forbidden love, not being able to express yourself — or everything always being under the skin. This is something very much a part of being Iranian,” she enthused, and continued, “Iranians have many layers of their personalities. So much of who they are has to be hidden. What the official state articulation of a person is very different from reality — the difference between home life and exterior [public] life. And you have that again, on another fold with sexuality — especially woman’s sexuality. Even within the relative freedom of the underground world, these girls’ exploration of sexuality is another subculture within a subculture — another layer of duality, another layer of what they have to hide to really express themselves.”

These intertwined themes of gender and sexuality form the basis for much of the film’s drama. In an early scene, Atafeh secretly passes an origami bird to her girlfriend Shireen. This affectionate moment captures the intimacy of these marginalized characters who dream of escaping to Dubai. However, Keshavarz also uses visuals — specifically surveillance-camera video — to emphasize the omniscient and ominous power that these young women are subjected to constantly.

One of the ways the characters communicate their forbidden desires is through dancing. “Circumstance” opens with a fantasy bellydancing scene. Other sequences have the girls attending a secret house party or going to a nightclub. At Atafeh’s home, the girls bond while singing and dancing to “Total Eclipse of the Heart” on TV.

Keshavarz said dancing is such an important means of expression for her characters: “The idea was for me to express real life and fantasy. The state can never control your imagination.”

The filmmaker described her own childhood, when she read books under her bed to subvert her religious parents. “I remember thinking, I respect my parents, but I don’t believe what they believe. I always thought there were places my parents couldn’t control — my dreams, my daydreams and my fantasies. I’d write in secret code in my journals. It’s a very palpable thing for people who don’t have space to express themselves. Maybe dancing is part of that?” she posed.

Atafeh and Shireen explore their desires physically too, but Keshavarz makes their sensuality erotic, not explicit. “It was important for me not to desexualize them,” she explained about the inclusion of several racy same-sex love scenes. “There are no men in the girls’ fantasies. There is more expressed sexuality in fantasy than in reality. In their real time, it’s very slight what they do. In their fantasy, it’s much more sexual, more erotic. It’s a space where they can really let loose.”

Keshavarz also noted how Middle Eastern women suffer when it comes to representations of sexuality.

“It’s something people don’t talk about. There are so many people that express their sexuality in ways that you just don’t know about. In the narrative they suffer, but [their sexuality] is only one of the many reasons that they suffer. How do you incorporate the aspect of being Middle Eastern and gay? There has never been a film about [Middle Eastern] women that expresses female sexuality. And that makes some Iranians uncomfortable.”

The authenticity of “Circumstance” is revelatory, especially in its depiction of Iranian teenage desire. When it came to the portrayal of sexuality, Keshavarz made sure to protect her actresses. Boosheri was only 18 when she made the film, but she identified strongly with her role and had a complete understanding of Atafeh, who is put in what Keshavarz called “an impossible situation.”

“Circumstance” is a courageous film because it shows how Atafeh and Shireen are both victims. It is their reality as well as twists of fate — the “circumstance” of the title — that they must endure in Iran.

Sometimes this is physical abuse, with women’s bodies being violated. Although these scenes are discretely filmed, they are quite horrifying. When Mehran is involved, the abuse is mental and equally shocking.

Mehran is a particularly creepy, troubling character. His insidious behavior — surreptitiously videotaping his family, for example — creates much of the film’s dramatic tension. Keshavarz confessed that Riza, the actor, took the role because “he was really afraid of his character.” She added, “The thing about [Mehran] that is so important is that he’s pleasant on the outside, and his [nastiness] is so much underneath the skin. That’s so much creepier.”

Mehran becomes a fundamentalist Muslim who is loyal to Iran. He frequently condemns his sister’s wild behavior, causing friction within the family. “They are opposite reactions to the same environment,” Keshavarz acknowledged. “Atafeh goes in one direction and her brother goes in another.”

The filmmaker has seven brothers, one of whom is her fraternal twin. It comes to reason that her upbringing may be how she constructed the dual narratives of Atafeh’s downward spiral and Mehran’s efforts toward redemption.

“I never thought of this!” Keshavarz exclaimed. “Maybe I did subconsciously. Perhaps because I’m a twin, and had someone born with me — and because we are different genders — we are very different, and express ourselves differently.” In the context of her film, she said, “in the end, it’s a system of oppression where even the jailer becomes incarcerated.”

One of the dramatic turning points in “Circumstance” involves Atafeh and Shireen being arrested by the secret police. Keshavarz specifically had the teenagers caught for a crime that did not involve their sexuality. However, what happens — and it involves Mehran — changes the course of the girls’ relationship, and is quite haunting.

“Circumstance” ultimately may box its characters into corners, but the film offers hope that they may find an escape. The film’s powerful ending should also prompt viewers to reflect on the question that opens the film: “If you could be anywhere, where would you be?”

When asked, Keshavarz herself was taken aback and answered, “Wow! In the world? In my imagination? Or in reality?” She laughed and then responded, “Right now, I’m pretty happy with where I am. ‘Circumstance’ was really hard to make, and because the film has gotten a great response, I’m able to press forth with my next project a lot easier. I’m in a very unique place. I’m very happy right now. Although I’d probably be happier if I was on a beach in Maui.”

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