Four Iranian teenagers sit in a sound booth, headphones on, making obscene sex noises, doing intermittent shots of liquor to loosen up, and bursting into laughter, ruining the takes. The director is annoyed. They are in the process of dubbing Gus van Sant’s Milk into Farsi. It’s totally absurd. At one point, one of the girls, drunk, starts making what sounds like real orgasm noises, very realistic, and one of the guys looks at her in shock and disgust. “Ladies here don’t make sounds like that.” The girl retorts, “Maybe you just don’t know how to produce them.” Snap!!
Circumstance, written and directed by Maryam Keshavarz, is great when it delves into the underground secret world of Tehran, a world we never get to see in Iranian film, due to censorship issues and the fact that everything portrayed in Circumstance is illegal. Filmed in Beirut, Keshavarz had more freedom than in telling her story in a straightforward manner. It’s no Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel and film about growing up in Tehran post-Revolution. Circumstance lacks the sense of humor and satire that is one of Satrapi’s major gifts. Circumstance is more earnest, and its earnestness gives it a too-heavy hand. But Circumstance has enough of interest to keep me engaged, even as I recognize the overwrought melodramatic and slightly exploitative aspects to Keshavarz’s story.
Atefah (Nikohl Boosheri) and Shireen (Sarah Kazemy) are best friends. They are in high school. They come from very different backgrounds. Atefah’s parents (Soheil Parsa and Nasrin Pakkho) are Westernized and wealthy. Atefah’s mother is a doctor. Atefah’s father is a music professor at the University. Both of his children, Atefah and Mehran, are musically inclined. Shireen, on the other hand, lives with her uncle and grandmother (her parents were killed, enemies of the regime). She lives in a traditional household, and her uncle sets her up with “suitors”.
Atefah is bold and aggressive, Shireen is shy and uncertain, but when they are alone together, they are lost in a world of laughter, accord, and fantasy. It’s like they are one person. There are a couple of moments when Atefah’s mother looks at her daughter and her friend, rolling around in the grass laughing, and you can see something hesitant dawn on her face. Atefah and Shireen look like lovers, they act like lovers. And, one weekend away at the seaside, they become lovers.
Passionate friendships between young teenage girls are, obviously, common. There is often an erotic element to such friendships. You’re teenagers, your hormones are insane, and boys can be a frightening and unsafe element. All of this is heightened by the barbaric gender separation in Iran, and the fact that the morality of women is treated as a national concern. So of course in that environment, men are not to be trusted, even men in your own family (this is especially true in Circumstance). The world of women, behind closed doors, provides escape, comfort, understanding, and fun. You can let your hair down. You can be free and spontaneous.
Keshavarz shows that divide (between private space, dominated by women, and public space, dominated by men) in various ways. Shireen and her grandmother mop the floor together in the kitchen, blasting Iranian pop music, and dancing around and laughing, splashing suds at each other. When Shireen’s uncle walks in, everything stops. The women freeze. This is the grandmother’s son, remember. But in Iran, he is top dog, due to his sex.
Atefah’s brother Mehran (Reza Sixo Safai) was a promising musician, but is now a drug addict, living at home. He has to give his father bottles of urine for drug testing. But then he finds comfort and peace at a local mosque. Young Westernized guys finding religion is often a terrible combination. Clutching to the traditional ways is comforting in a world that is too fast-paced, modern, confusing, etc., but often it makes these guys bullies, busybodies, fanatics, and, at worst, murderers (Mohammad Atta and pals). Mehran secretly gets a job with the infamous Morality Police, one of many plot-points in Circumstance that I didn’t buy. He sets up secret cameras through his own home, so he can spy on everyone. A lot of Circumstance involves security camera footage, representing the extension of the Morality Police into all circles of life. Private life is sacred in such countries, because public life is so rigid. Mehran breaks that contract by bringing cameras into his home.
But this is a love story. A love story between two young women in a country where you can be hanged for such a thing. Atefah and Shireen concoct fantasies of moving to Dubai, where “anything is possible”. In their fantasies, they hang out in penthouse suites wearing glittering cocktail dresses, standing on glamorous balconies, lying in a cool white bed, and it all looks a little bit Red Shoe Diaries. (Nothing against Red Shoe Diaries.) Atefah will get a job singing in a nightclub, and Shireen will sit in the audience watching, and they will be able to live, love, and make love to their hearts’ content. I suppose the fantasies show how young the girls are. Nothing about any of it seems real or achievable.
My favorite parts of the film were the parts that showed the vast swirling underground life of Tehran, things I have only heard about. (“They have the best parties in Tehran,” an Iranian friend of mine told me. Looks like.) The girls show up at an apartment in the middle of the day, saying into the intercom, “We’re here for the sewing party.” On their way up the stairwell, they remove their chadors and hijabs, revealing skintight glittering dresses. The “sewing party” is a raucous dance-party in someone’s apartment, with alcohol, drug dealers dispensing pills, and a giant surreal video screen. Shireen is shy. Atefah is not. She hits the dance floor. She does shots. She gives Shireen some ecstasy. Later that night, filmed in erotic slo-mo, the two girls spray graffiti on a crumbling wall, and crash the window of a nearby car to grab the sparkling purse lying on the seat. They kiss for the first time.
Love is equal to societal rebellion. Love is equated with crime. It has to be when nothing is allowed. In a conversation with a friend who spent his childhood in America and who has recently returned to Iran, Atefah tells him, “Everything here is politically subversive.” Circumstance is best when it tries to slice that truth open and show it. Mehran, creeping around his own house, is representative of the male establishment, their weirdness about women. In a society that mistreats its women, everyone suffers. Mehran wants to be kind, he wants to be accepted, but Shireen is creeped out by him. And Atefah has noticed there is a change in her brother. They used to play the piano together, and laugh and joke around. He recoils from her now, as though she is dirty.
Atefah’s father, a kindly man, reminisces about his youth, as a young guy during the Revolution. Of course we all know that what began as a democratic movement whose sole aim was to remove the corrupt Shah, was then co-opted by a lunatic fanatic who flew in from Paris on the first flight to Iran he could get on. Those who had hoped for more democratization were horrified at how things played out over the next year or so. Many of Iran’s best and brightest fled the country, a classic example of the brain-drain phenomenon. There’s a moment at the seaside in Circumstance where Atefah glances over at a family nearby. The men, in swimsuits, come bounding out of the water, and the woman, draped in a sweltering chador, sits there, serving them food. Atefah’s father, about to go take a plunge himself, looks down at his daughter and says, acknowledging the entire situation, “Some day you’ll be able to go in, too.”
I know Circumstance is a sexy lesbian melodrama, but that was the best line in the entire film, and the saddest.
Circumstance shows a Tehran of hidden nightclubs, drug addicts, mayhem, cigarettes, and condoms – all contraband, all illegal. But what are you gonna do? You’re 17, 18. You’re gonna go to the nightclub, smoke some cigarettes, bump and grind, and take your chances. Nobody seems afraid of getting caught, and yet the repercussions, of course, are severe. During one arrest (and there are many throughout the film), Atefah is violently examined to see if she is still a virgin. This is a commonplace for girls in trouble in Iran (there’s a similar scene in The Girl in the Sneakers), and Atefah has parents who are willing to come bail her out. Shireen does not. Atefah’s behavior starts becoming more and more rebellious, and Shireen starts to retreat.
Shireen’s traditional family now treats her like she is a literal whore, and so she must be married off immediately.
You can probably guess who is chosen to be her husband. Let’s turn up the flames of melodrama, yeah!
While Circumstance would have benefited from a bit more subtlety and humor, the story of two young girls who, honestly, should be free to do whatever the hell they want to do as long as they aren’t hurting anyone, is tragic, and revelatory in its way. Circumstance, about Iran but not an Iranian film, not exactly, can get away with being frank, sexual, and obvious. It can say what it means. This is not an endorsement of censorship but sometimes censorship forces film-makers to be inventive, subtle, and ironic in ways that are lost when you can say anything. The extraordinary debut feature of Maryam Shahriar, Daughters of the Sun (review here), filmed in Iran, with non-professional actors mostly, is a harrowing look at the poverty-struck lives of the women who weave the gorgeous rugs that are then sold in boutiques in New York City for thousands and thousands of dollars. One dresses up as a boy, as a survival technique, because the world is brutal to women in ways that are specific and not to be considered. One of the other weavers falls in love with the young boy at the loom, who is really a girl. It’s a breathtaking film, with gorgeous raw imagery, poetic and magnificent, but palpitating with sexual and emotional tension. Does the young girl know that the boy she loves is actually a girl? The film does not say. Of course, in Iran, there is so much that you are not allowed to say.
There is a moment in Daughters of the Sun when the lead character, having been beaten by her employer, is left alone in the weaving hut with the yarn, all hanging to dry, in their magnificent colors. With blood coming out of her battered nose, she comforts herself by plunging her face ecstatically into the yarn. This woman is an artist. Women’s work such as weaving is dismissed and scorned, not just in Iran, but everywhere. But this woman can do unbelievable things with that yarn. In that moment, she is proud, she owns those colors. It’s a powerful and potent image. Erotic, sensuous, feminist, tragic, all at the same time.
There’s a lot to be said about the power of inference. Don’t tell us everything. Don’t show us everything. Hold back on your need to explain. Find a new way. Be inventive with images. Don’t be afraid of symbols and metaphors, but use them wisely and sparingly. Inference is lacking, in general, in much of today’s cinema, which is why films like The Master or The Kid With a Bike were so thrilling last year. Infer, infer, infer.
The plot in Circumstance is such that it does not want to leave us alone. It wants us to get, really get, the horror of these women’s circumstances. But we get it. Trust me, we get it. I got it from the shot on the beach with those asshole men who get to go swimming while the women swelter in veils on the shore. Seriously. That’s all you need to show me.
And so the following dawn, when Atefah and Shireen, having made love for the first time, sneak down to the beach, before anyone is up, to pull off their clothes and go plunging into the water in their underwear …. the scene is an angry fist-pump of victory.
Much to admire here. Much to think about.