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Iranian Lesbians Fall Victim To ‘Circumstance’

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
August 25, 2011

The incredibly overheated adventure of two girls in love, Iranian-American director Maryam Keshavarz’s Circumstance strains to convey the fever of adolescent abandon in a repressive land. But the drama, set in Iran and filmed in Lebanon, does contain episodes that feel true.

Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri) and Shireen (Sarah Kazemy) are 16-year-old classmates and best friends. Both come from liberal backgrounds, but Atafeh is more secure because she has the support of her upscale family. Shireen’s parents were disappeared years before, and at school she’s regarded suspiciously as the child of enemies of the Islamic Revolution.

By day, the girls live mostly as the authorities expect. But at night, they visit parties, clubs and DVD stores — all of them clandestine and illegal. Sometimes, they join friends on graffiti “bombing” raids. Other evenings, they retire to Atafeh’s bedroom to snuggle and kiss. (The makeout sessions are PG-13 stuff, although Iran’s censors would surely rate them XXX.)

Atafeh’s sense of immunity begins to fade when her older brother returns after an absence. Mehran (Reza Sixo Safai) has struggled with drug addiction — heroin abuse is common in Iran — and attended a rehab center where he found religion. At first, he seems benign. But Mehran is now allied with the country’s morality police, who are especially concerned with female transgressions. He uses his new connections as a source of power over his sister — and, ultimately, her friend as well.

Keshavarz was born and raised in the U.S., but spent summers with her cousins in Shiraz. Her depiction of Tehran’s youth-culture underground, partially corroborated by last year’s No One Knows About Persian Cats, is exuberant and persuasive.

Both films pulse with music that’s officially forbidden, or at least disdained. Atafeh and her father — and, previously, Mehran — share a passion for Bach and Beethoven. Atafeh and Shireen also listen to Iranian hip-hop, American electro-punk and Bonnie Tyler’s 1983 cheese souffle “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” Indeed, Shireen dreams of becoming a chanteuse, a hopeless ambition in a country where women are forbidden to sing in public.

Circumstance is best during its simpler, more naturalistic moments. In one, Mehran rebuffs a junkie who stumbles into the mosque, only to see that an Islamic hardliner is more compassionate. In another, Atafeh and Shireen are at the beach, covered head to foot in hijabs. Then they hear the call to prayer and, knowing that men won’t be there to witness, strip to their undies and go for a prohibited swim.

Other sequences, recounting the everyday harassment of young women by cops and cabbies, are rendered with a heavier hand. But they’re necessary both to the story and to establishing the powerlessness of women under authoritarian Islamic rule.

Some developments, however, are less plausible. The girls get involved with an Iranian-American DVD bootlegger who is dubbing Milk in Persian, hoping to tweak the government with a movie that portrays a gay hero. And Mehran becomes a master manipulator, taking control of his family’s household and threatening Atafeh’s relationship with Shireen. (The friends’ fantasies of living free and sexy in Dubai are also a little much.)

Made for less than $1 million with an international cast of Persian-speaking exiles, Circumstance is in many ways an impressive achievement. But its mix of documentary detail and melodramatic plotting ultimately tips toward the latter. Ironically, the movie’s principal audience is likely to draw from viewers who are more interested in sober reality than lurid fiction. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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