American Iranian director Maryam Keshavarz debuts with Circumstance (2011), the sensual tale of a complex love triangle set in the swirling underground party scene of Tehran. A wealthy, liberal family struggle to cope with the increasing sexual rebellion of their daughter Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri), who is falling in love with her best friend Shireen (Sarah Kazemy). The situation is made more complicated with the return of Atafeh’s brother, Mehran (Reza Sixo Safai), a devout Muslim who has also fallen for his sister’s beautiful companion.
Keshavarz has chosen some very controversial thematics with which to open her feature film career. The homosexual subject matter has been treated with sensitivity and no fear is shown in the handling of the relationship between the two women, where others might have opted for cheap sensationalism. This is an arresting and beautiful love story that carefully navigates its themes. Whilst the love story is central to the film and drives the plot forward at an enjoyable pace, Keshavarz has also raised many political issues.
Like its protagonist, this is a rebellious feature portraying a teenage subculture kicking against the strict religious oppression they face. Moments are included, such as how much hair a woman can show in public, or who they can legitimately walk with down the street without causing controversy. Importantly, these tricky subject matters are also treated with a degree of playfulness. References are made to Gus Van Sant’s Milk (2008), adopted as a figure of rebellion to rally behind, and amusingly dealt with in a scene where the rebellious teens provide the voice over-dubbing.
The cast of Circumstance must be commended for being willing to commit to roles that will ultimately, like the director, lead to them being unable to re-enter Iran. Boosheri, who plays Atafeh, provides a tremendous performance and generates a powerful chemistry with her co-star Kazemy. Equally impressive is Safai’s performance as Mehran, a reformed drug addict who has developed a zealous faith. His role exposes the level of oppression faced in Iran, drawing in a story involving the religious police force who rigidly follow the Koran, enforcing the rules of conservative Islam to the letter. The level of tension draws the audience deeper and deeper into the girls’ lives, unable to do anything other than be swept up in the moments of their love.
This is fresh, original and well-crafted cinema. Keshavarz has already been commended, winning the coveted Audience Selection Award at Sundance last year, but Circumstance should be watched by all for its expert engagement with its audience and for the beautiful, if ultimately doomed, love story.