CIRCUMSTANCE (Maryam Keshavarz, 2011)

Iranian-born Maryam Keshavarz, who grew up in New York, made Circumstance, which is set in today’s Tehran, in Beirut, Lebanon, instead. It deals with the issue of lesbianism in a fundamentalist state, as well as the cruelty of marriage in a patriarchal society. A striking film, this is her feature debut, for which Keshavarz has won best film prizes at Rome and the New York Gay and Lesbian Film Festival.
     The principal action revolves around two teenaged schoolgirls, best friends Atafeh, whose parents are high-scale, and orphaned Shireen, whose parents, progressive journalists, were likely killed by the state. In the course of the film the girls’ playfulness deepens into a sexual relationship that they do their best to keep secret from their families and the state. Parallel to this, and indeed tied in to it, are their alternative lives, “good girls” by day, and cutting loose from their hijabs and hip-hopping in Tehran’s underground youth culture at night: fun-loving kids, but, in the Islamic Republic, thus living on a dangerous edge.
     Mehran is Atafeh’s older brother. Just released from drug rehabilitation, he suffers the indignity of having his father hover over him at home as he urinates into a cup so that the state can monitor his recovery. But the boy, who adores his sister, does an about-face and embraces orthodoxy with a vengeance, becoming a member of Iran’s Morality Police. (Those reviewers who question this switch of his know nothing about adolescent male insecurity, vulnerability, need for acceptance.) Mehran ends up forcing Shireen into (for her) a loveless marriage and booby-trapping his parents’ home with spy-cams to catch and record his wife and Atafeh in flagrante delicto. Confronted with evidence of her infidelity, he rapes Shireen, afterwards sobbing, “Why wasn’t I enough for you?”—the worst moment in the film. Mehran’s rhetorical question is a wholly unbelievable line of dialogue, and there are also others in writer-director Keshavarz’s script. Another weakness: the whole thing is cheapened and considerably drawn out by the use of color in lieu of crisp black and white. Nevertheless, this film is an important advocation of human rights—the urge toward freedom and self-fulfillment, and the odiousness of cultural and political forces arrayed against this.

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