Written by Kate Kelsall
08 Sunday 08th April 2012

Receiving great critical attention at last year’s Sundance, Circumstance is young director, producer and writer Maryam Keshavarz’s first full length feature film. Previously having made a documentary (The Colour of Love) and experimental short film (Sanctuary), the debt to both forms is self evident. Circumstance exists both within a highly charged political framework – Iranian religious politics inform and impact continuously – and an aesthetically sensitive realm in which the cinematography expertly guides the emotive atmosphere of the narrative. Keshavarz also acknowledges huge autobiographical influence. Her experience of growing up as an Iranian-American woman straddling East and West gives the film an intimate and even nostalgic tone.

Atafeh has grown up in a privileged, liberal and culturally open household encouraged to foster her musicality and by proxy her individuality. Befriending beautiful but troubled Shireen, (daughter of imprisoned writers) Atafeh is stigmatised in their religiously purist school. Together the two girls embark on a whirlwind exploration of Tehran’s underground scene and its heady cocktail of dancing, drugs and sexual experimentation. Their misconduct in a repressive and controlled society begins to cause friction in Atefeh’s family, particularly with her newly religiously zealous, reformed drug addict brother Mehran.

Adolescence and its explosive interaction with a world of temptations and new frontiers are treated with a light handed finesse that, often thanks to the political, social setting, successfully avoids cliche. From the outset the audience is buoyantly absorbed in the girls' small acts of rebellion. When Shireen says of her Uncle “he will kill me”, the audience knows that this is more than teenage hyperbole.

We genuinely feel their liberated and elated youthfulness as Atefah sings out loud in her car, exclaiming “this song is orgasmic” and playfully blow gum bubbles.

This soaring empathy reaches its pinnacle in a scene where they thwart taboo, throwing off their clothes and diving into the ocean in the early morning, before disapproving public eyes can restrict them from doing so. Later we see the girls and their male peers, overdubbing Western movies in Iranian, verbally act out a sex scene. Tentative and unsure moaning gradually gives way to rambunctious and jubilant shrieks in a passage that is both comic and endearing.   

The sexual scenes between the girls are split between fantasy dream sequences inhabiting minimalist grandiose space of Dubai apartments (a romantized Utopia where anything is possible) that are highly eroticised and flawless, and their real life fumbled sessions behind the closed doors in Atifeh’s luxury home. The illicit nature of their relationship within the setting, adds a tension and urgency to these scenes and their intimacy and naivety is convincing and heart warming. When Shireen is forced into a marriage of convenience with Atifeh's brother Mehran, the heterosexual sex is by contrast unemotive and spartan. Even a rape scene is portrayed as devoid of true feeling.

Circumstance is not all joyous sexual liberation and the dark undertones of surveillance and oppression are set up from the opening, with flashes of CCTV footage following the girls in their misadventures around Tehran. The choice to focus on a wealthy and liberal family is a wise one, highlighting the tensions of religious extremism introduced by Mehran and adoration of the arts teamed with an indulgent lifestyle encouraged by the father figure, who is played with great dignity and complexity.

When the girls are caught out and cautioned by the morality police, Atifeh’s father accuses her of overstepping a line, which she rebukes, reasoning that everything she has done was because of him. Circumstance raises the idea that repressive states make balance and moderation impossible. Atifeh hovers precariously between being branded a harlot and being forced into religious submission; the liberal middle ground expounded by her father seems an uninhabitable and risky no mans land.

As these conflicts and stresses play out, the carefully constructed relationships established from the film’s outset begin to unravel. We see the darker side to hedonistic experimentation when Shireen loses control in a threatening nightclub, witness sexual perversity in the form of a taxi driver with a foot fetish and watch as the tables turn when the father bows before the head of the morality police to offer him tea.

Circumstance presents two trajectories – the upward progression of youthful rebellion against the corruptive downward spirals of oppression and the damage this inflicts. The characters are acted with a sensitivity that propels the narrative beyond a generic coming of age story. The intense heat and Middle Eastern bright sunshine offset teenage desire and frustration. All in all, this a confident debut from a highly promising young filmmaker. 

Circumstance showed as part of BFI's 26th Lesbian and Gay Film Festival last month. Unfortunately there isn't a set UK general release but its well worth buying the DVD.

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