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Circumstance: More than just 'that Iranian lesbian movie'

While many will probably refer to 'Circumstance' in shorthand as 'the Iranian lesbian movie,' part of what makes the film so powerful is its portrayal of modern-day Iran

Reuters, Friday 26 Aug 2011
Circumstance
Photo: Reuters
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After Iranian-American filmmaker Maryam Keshavarz made" Circumstance," she knew she would might never be able to return to her homeland again, but that hasn't stopped her from telling the story.

The film, which is playing in US theatres after a strong debut at this year's Sundance Film Festival, tells of two Iranian teenage girls who fall in love. But they face interference from a brother who joins the religious police and a government that refuses to acknowledge gay people exist.

"I've seen very few films that address women's sexuality -- in Iran, in the Muslim world, at all," Keshavarz told Reuters. "As much as some people are upset about the film, there are other people who are like, 'Finally! Something that's us!'"

The story and characters are fictional but Keshavarz, who wrote and directed the film, said they are based on real-life experiences among her friends.

Sure, it's a lousy place to be a woman who loves women, but it's also not so great if you're an intellectual or a feminist or even just a fan of hip-hop.

Writer-director Maryam Keshavarz's debut feature contains echoes of "The Lives of Others" and "My Son, the Fanatic," but it stands on its own in its portrayal of everyday people trying to make the best of their circumstances in a restrictive society.

Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri) and Shireen (Sarah Kazemy) are best friends -- wealthy Atafeh lives in privilege (her father is a noted musician and her mother a Berkeley-educated surgeon), while Shireen has been raised by her grandfather after her parents, both academics, were killed by the government.

They can't leave the house without headscarves, or drive a car, or even swim in the ocean publicly, but like teenage girls everywhere, they've figured out a way to misbehave -- the pair take us on a tour of underground Teheran, where afternoon discotheques (complete with drugs) flourish in apartments and barbershops hide secret stores full of contraband CDs and DVDs.

(A visiting American-born Iranian wants to dub "Milk" into Farsi as a tool of revolution; his friend agrees only on the condition that they bootleg it on the same disc as a dubbed "Sex and the City" movie.)

Atafeh and Shireen's lives of down-low recklessness become imperiled by the return of Atafeh 's brother Mehran (Reza Sixo Safai) -- a failed musician-turned-addict, he trades one drug for another, namely religious fanaticism. Mehran joins the Morality Police, a volunteer group of thugs who enforce the nation's draconian cultural laws, and he soon begins spying on his family. Even more frightening, we see how Mehran and Atafeh 's progressive parents slowly fall under the sway of their son's religious zeal.

During all this, Atafeh and Shireen discover that they love each other, and they make big plans about running away to Dubai to live openly. (Not that Dubai is all that far ahead of Iran when it comes to issues of homosexuality, but that's another story.) The privileged Atafeh can bribe her way out of the country, the film suggests, but things may not be so easy for Shireen.

Shot undercover in Beirut, "Circumstance" allows a glimpse into the iconoclastic and dissatisfied youth who have played such a huge role in this year's "Arab Spring" and in the current uprisings in Libya and Syria.

And it's the kind of movie to show to your parents or anyone else who gets swayed by a presidential candidate who says that he (or she) wants to run the United States based on "Biblical principles."

Those of us living in the Western world get a little coddled about what theocracy really looks like, and it's a good thing to get a reminder every so often.

While shooting in what must have been challenging circumstances, Keshavarz still manages to get sterling performances from a Farsi-speaking cast containing many newcomers. The film looks great as well, with cinematographer Brian Rigney Hubbard capturing everything from a secret rave party to a beachside jaunt to Atafeh's dreams of luxury in Dubai in a way that makes each feel realistic and still contextual to the whole movie.

Ultimately, "Circumstance" isn't about religion or politics -- it's about masses, huddled or otherwise, yearning to breathe free. And their stories are ones we don't hear often enough.

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BREAKING RULES

The lesbian subject matter isn't the only controversial aspect of "Circumstance". The film violates many cinematic practices common in Iran and other parts of the Muslim world.

"It didn't adhere to the rules of Iranian cinema, where women have to have their hair covered," Keshavarz said. "We even have sex scenes and nudity in the film".

There is also a scene where Shireen and Atafeh, the two main characters, strip down to their underwear for an illicit swim in the sea. Perhaps the film's most controversial -- and talked about -- scene is a fantasy sequence in which the women imagine themselves in an amorous tryst in a Dubai hotel room.

In Iran, filming certain realities can exact a high price. Jafar Panahi, an internationally celebrated filmmaker, was arrested in March 2010 amid speculation he was making a film critical of Iran's current regime. He was imprisoned and forbidden to make any films or leave Iran for 20 years.

There was never a question of filming in Iran, so Keshavarz engaged in "an extensive search" for the perfect location which she found in Beirut. But even in that city, there came risk. While many gay men and women live in and travel to Beirut, homosexuality remains illegal in Lebanon.

To get government permission to film, Keshavarz removed parts of the script she thought censors may find inflammatory, including anything to do with sexuality or religion. "We shot those scenes anyway. We just didn't submit them," she said.

Lebanese authorities often came on set during filming, which sometimes forced the crew to scuttle production plans and find innovative means of distraction.

Even after shooting was finished, Keshavarz exercised caution by carrying undeveloped film to Jordan, then shipping it to the US for processing.

Her efforts seem to have paid off. "Circumstance" earned the Audience Award at Sundance, as well as several other honors at gay and straight film festivals throughout 2011.

Now "Circumstance" faces a new test -- US audiences and box offices. But even that may not be its biggest challenge. The major hurdle will be when, if ever, it debuts in Tehran.

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