Such strict censorship laws from the authoritarian Islamic Republic mean that Iranian cinema is a highly contentious subject within the cinema industry. Fronted by the under-house arrest director Jafar Panahi, it is incredibly commendable to see the new wave movement flourishing, even when the dissident filmmakers are at risk of being banned from making movies or ostracised from their homes altogether. Such provocation is exactly what American-Iranian director Maryam Keshavarz is grappling with in Circumstance, although to exploitative, trite and ultimately pathetic ends.
Instantly banned before reaching cinemas there, Circumstance wasn’t made in Iran either, shot instead in Beirut as a stand-in for Tehran, with a cast of expats all fluent in Farsi. Based on her own exilic experiences Iranian society, Keshavarz has a truthful story to tell and, unlike the fictional characters, she also has the freedom to tell it.
A transgression on the universal theme of teenage love, Shireen (Sarah Kazemy) and Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri) are 16-year-old schoolgirls who share a passion for pop music, clubbing, drinking and, most incriminatingly, each other. The former is an orphan still stained by her deceased parents’ revolutionary writing. The latter is somewhat a rebellious Iranian herself, a lover of hip-hop and, surprisingly, Bonnie Tyler. The inseparable pair have a closeness that’s forbidden in Iran; away from domineering males, they caress, kiss, and dream of escape from their oppressive realities. Subtly depicted by Keshavarz with a focus on tangible corporeality, there’s close-ups of intertwined flesh, and red lips on red fingernails, an exotic physicality far removed from their hajib-veiled modesty in the male dominated realms they inhabit.
Redacting my initially snooty response to an Iranian-set film filmed outside of Iran, Keshavarz captures the rebellious city milieu with acute, lived-in detail. Vivaciously shot by D.P. Brian Rigney Hubbard, the youth-populated subcultures of Tehran hanging out in makeshift, drug fuelled nightclubs; where people dress and act outside of the nation’s austere exterior. Such realism doesn’t stretch quite as far with Circumstance‘s secondary characters however, with Atafeh’s parents as the hapless ‘liberals’ and the escalating drama stemming from the arrival of her brother Mehran (Reza Sixo Safai) is lavishly expressed. A failed musician just out of rehab, replacing hard drugs with muslim fundamentalism.
The unwelcome return of Mehran is exactly where Keshavarz starts losing her way withCircumstance. Without any dramatic explanation or insight into his previous, incriminating life, Mehran’s embrace of hardline Sharia law is nothing more than a creaky plot device to quash the girls’ love forever. Circumstance plummets down into melodrama even further, when he completes his transition from beaten-down recovering junkie to malevolent monster who – unbeknownst to them – spends his days spying on his family with security cameras. With these hokey thriller-narrative divergencies, the film quickly moves away from the personal and tragic love story we started with, losing grip of reality and political potency in the process.
Circumstance inharmoniously blends naturalism with increasingly unhinged melodrama. The result is titillating and, on the most part, entertaining, but a cruel disservice to the hefty subject of transgressive Islamic society which Keshavarz is shouting out about from the comfort of her New York home.