by Sarah Silver
Dir. Maryam Keshavarz, Iran/France, Roadside Attractions
In a mid-nineties interview following the release of her film Fire (which ignited riots across India because of its depiction of a Hindu lesbian love affair), director Deepa Mehta said that had she been a Muslim director dealing with the topic of homosexuality, she “would have been lynched.” Now, some fifteen years later, Iranian-American director Maryam Keshavarz has made Circumstance, among the world’s first fiction films about Muslim lesbians. In fact, prior to Parvez Sharma’s 2007 documentary A Jihad for Love, the dearth of gay and lesbian characters in Iranian film would have had anyone using cinema as their barometer of the times credulously accepting Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s statements in 2007 that homosexuality simply does not exist in Iran.
Thus, even if Circumstance were completely didactic and predictable, I would still feel obligated to give Keshavarz some props for representing an invisible population. Thankfully, there is much more to this debut feature than mere politics; part coming-of-age tale, part family drama, Circumstance features a beguiling cast, beautifully photographed. It presents us with two sides of modern day Iran; the stifled surface teeming over with repressed sexuality, and the pulsating underworld, where Ecstasy is doled out like communion wafers at secret parties and illegal discotheques, and women riding alone in taxis at night run the risk of cabbies fetishistically molesting their feet. The worlds are separated visually; every time red clashes against navy blue or black, as it does in an opening scene where a crimson origami crane is passed from schoolgirl to schoolgirl against the shroud of their heavy, dark clothes, we are made aware of the discord between these two societies.
Sarah Kazemy and Nikohl Boosheri shine brightly as Shireen and Atie, the bold teenage heroines of the film. There’s a cinematic symbiosis at play between the two actresses and Keshavarz, herself a first-time director. The ingénues reverberate the director’s excitement, giddy with the exuberance of youth, and Keshavarz’s camera, in turn, idolizes these raven-haired beauties. Their three-way chemistry is engaging and adds another level of discovery and rebellion to the film; these women are breaking rules just by making this movie.
Shireen and Atie are typical teenagers by Western standards; after school, rather than going straight home to study, they bounce around town blowing gum bubbles and inventing new ways of walking down the street, like the duo in Greece’s 2010 entry into the bicurious female coming-of-age canon, Attenberg. Shireen and Atie protect one another from predatory boys, meanwhile stealing the occasional kiss from one another. With their cohorts, the sexually ambiguous Hossein and Joey, the girls frequent parties where they are able to shed their traditional garb to reveal fitted sequined dresses that sparkle as they slither and shimmy on the dance floor. A scene in a DVD store is effervescent with hope for change and revolution as the quartet voice idealistic dreams of dubbing Gus Van Sant’s Milk into Farsi and introducing into their culture a gay icon who cannot be subverted by Iranian censors.
Shireen is orphaned and spends most of her time at Atie’s, where she is welcomed like one of the family. Atie comes from privilege; her parents, scholars and former revolutionaries, have a beautiful home hung with lush tapestries in rural Iran, where they have encouraged their children to study classical Western music and where they wax nostalgic about time spent in San Francisco in the sixties. Their wayward son, Mehran (Reza Sixo Safai), has recently crossed back over from society’s underbelly; he is a recovering drug addict channeling his compulsive tendencies into religious fanaticism. Safai’s onscreen presence is unnerving; his matinee idol looks undermined by the sheer Anthony Perkins creepiness of his beady, contemptuous gaze. The film uses the visual motif of surveillance camera footage throughout and, while it certainly suggests the watchful eye of the police force and militia in a politically oppressed country, in the house it quite literally means that Big Brother Mehran is watching you. Even when Mehran is not lurking in a corner observing his sister (about whom he has scandalous dreams) and her friend, he has his eye on them thanks to a system of cameras rigged up in the house.
We don’t know if Mehran witnesses the film’s central scene of sensual lovemaking between Atie and Shireen, because we never cut to his surveillance cam. Instead, cinematographer Brian Rigney Hubbard’s camera sinuously glides up and down the girls’ bodies in one long take, tenderly revealing caresses at either end of its trajectory. Their euphoric postcoital swim is the film’s highlight; away from watchful eyes, they float easily, enraptured by the night and enveloped in the warm sea, the instigators of their own personal Arab Spring.
[spoilers ahead] Once the film’s secondary plot point comes around, the film loses steam, as it stops being about these glittering girls and their chemistry, and begins to just plod along through mandatory beats until the girls split up at the end. Shireen, who originally seemed the one more committed to the romance, ends up hornswoggled into a loveless marriage and Atie, the ballsier of the two, decides to leave Iran. Fair enough, since the film has to end somehow, and even if the girls had grown up in New York City, there would be no guarantee that their puppy love would last into adulthood. What’s most noteworthy about Circumstance isn’t its plot, but rather that it represents a particular moment in Iranian history. Because the moment is exciting, the film can’t help but glimmer in the reflected light.