Circumstance begins with a whisper and a dream: “If you could be anywhere in the world where would you be?” The titles cut to Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri) performing a seductive song and dance number, dressed in sparkled bra and revealing skirt, hazed by smoke in the dark club, and watched with a flirtatious smile by Shireen (Sarah Kazemy) The camera flirts as well, outlining Atafeh’s body but cutting away sharply whenever the more scandalous parts become the centerpiece.
Not what you expect from a movie about teenagers in contemporary Iran.
This opening, though, is but a fantasy and by the next scene we’re in more familiar territory. Atafeh and Shireen stand in military formation during attendance for high school, bodies fully covered, head-scarves wrapped tightly, with security cameras keeping watch.
Atafeh, we learn, comes from a wealthy, progressive family. Her father is a businessman, her mother a doctor, and religion plays a relatively small role in their lives. Shireen, meanwhile, is an orphan living with her grandmother and more traditional uncle, who we first meet when he brings home a suitor for Shireen. And the relationship between the two girls, we quickly find out, is more than friendly.
Circumstance moves between Iran’s structured and heavily observed public life and Atafeh and Shireen’s exploits in the more rebellious subculture. They go to “sewing classes” held in apartments with an outward sheen of normality, but where the head scarves come off, the drugs and alcohol come out, the music plays loud, and protection is at hand in the drawer.
Circumstance treats repression in Iran on an almost purely sexual level. Certainly the pent up sexual tension of all the characters can serve as a metaphor for the oppressive Iranian society in general, but even that option is jettisoned in one of the movie’s best scenes.
Hossein (Sina Amedson), a visiting American friend peruses a store’s selection of bootleg movies with Atafeh, Shireen, and their friend Joey (Keon Mohajeri). Hossein suggests that the Iranian struggle is similar to Harvey Milk’s push for gay rights in the US, and that someone should release a dubbed version of Milk in Iran. The other three seem interested but quickly turn to the more pressing topic of who would play whom, who would have sex with whom. The exacerbated American’s reaction is priceless: “This film is not about fucking. It’s about human rights!”
Whether the same can be said about Circumstance is tricky. It’s undoubtedly an incredibly sensual movie. Atafeh and Shireen’s love scenes are shot with a sense of danger, the camera timidly capturing what it knows should not be recorded. Not that we see anything explicit, an important choice by writer-director Maryam Keshavarz that makes the scenes all the more erotic.
The only times things do get explicit are when we turn from Atafeh and Shireen’s rebellions to their fantasies. Here the two dream of truly removing their shackles and actively, openly pursuing their desires. But they’re also where Circumstance unnecessarily goes beyond the boundaries of Iranian reality. Like sex scenes, fantasy is best left understated if we’re to understand it from the point of view of the characters.
But the bigger qualm is that fantasy and escapism are all the film provides in terms of a solution to repression. What makes this relative hopelessness a bit more palatable is that it’s done not out of apathy but from a sad, forced resignation. In the behind the scenes documentary that comes with the DVD, Keshavarz, an Iranian-American, reveals the personal sacrifice that came with making the movie, namely the inability to ever go back to Iran. In an interview with IndieWire, Keshavarz notes how “making the film was in a sense, a loss.”
For all the sub-cultural resistance and small acts of rebellion the film shows, for all the ways that it shows Iran as a culture about to explode from decades of prolonged repression, Circumstance simmers with that same choice between complacency and loss.
“Sometimes we have to accept our reality,” Atafeh’s mother explains to Atafeh when her exploits get her in increasingly more trouble with the authorities. Her father is even starker: “If you think somewhere else is better, go!” Like for Keshavarz, resistance and life in Iran do not go together in Circumstance. One can escape repression within the country for a limited time – through sexual exploits, drugs, or dreams of winning American Idol. But when the authorities start pressing, and the family gets anxious, the options whittle down quickly to a sorry one, encapsulated with tragic succinctness in the movie’s final words: “We can leave.”
It would have been great if the commentary on the DVD with Kershavanz and other crew members had spoken more forthrightly about how the film connects to the desire and possibility for change. It unfortunately includes mostly surface level discussion about the film, with a few great stories about dodging the authorities in Lebanon (where the movie was shot) while filming the more sexually explicit scenes.
Seen from the outside, signs of dissent surface in Iran from time to time, most recently the Green Wave that presaged the Arab Spring and that resurfaced in the aftermath of revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya. If and when such change does come, Circumstance could very well be charged with having had too little hope. Right now, though, the movie lives as a heartfelt message from an expatriate about just how desolate the view can be when you’re on the ground.