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Circumstance: Truth Worth the Risk

By Meredith Alloway · September 12, 2011

If anything, go see this film because you should. Artists, across the centuries, have been the first ones to speak, to be brave enough to say it out loud. Artists hold so much power and whenever a filmmaker takes advantage of this, praise should be paid. Circumstance is the debut film written and directed by Maryam Keshavarz, an American-Iranian graduate of NYU’s Film school. For her first film, she illustrates the story of budding sexuality between two teenage girls rebelling against the oppressive Tehran theocracy. During an interview at the January Sundance Film Festival, where Circumstance won the Audience Award for Dramatic Competition, Keshavarz remarked on her own Iranian relations, “I can’t go back now.” For Keshavarz, as well as her electrifyingly talented cast, the truth the film portrays was worth the risk.

Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri) and Shireen (Sarah Kazemy) come from two very different backgrounds, but are the closest of friends. They share every secret, have sleepovers every night, even engage in a few make-out sessions here and there… best friends in every way. Atafeh is the daughter of wealthy doctors, whose father was part of the 1979 Islamic revolution, while Shireen’s parents were intellectuals who were killed by the state, all which is only briefly hinted upon. Both girls manage to make their way into the underground party scene where the Iranian youth meets to take a shot or two and get a taste of freedom. All the while Mehrah (Reza Sixo Safai), Atafeh’s recovering drug addict brother, explores his own religious and sexual curiosities when he returns home.

Boosheri, Kazemy, and Safai carry the film. All Iranian, but raised in various parts of the world, they bring an invigorating presence to each and every moment the camera preys upon them; which it does a lot. The film finds its story within the character’s interactions, and with a structure so scattered, it seems like perhaps the actors delivered juicy cinematic moments not in the script, which kept Kesharaz shouting, “Keep rolling” a little too often. She was constantly waiting for the scene to find success in the performances of her actors instead of instilling it first in her script.  Scenes between the Atafeh and Shireen playing on the beach or dancing at a party or just laying around seemed to drag on. They were intended for exposition, to establish the relationship between the two girls, but exposition without action is nearly always the death of a potentially riveting film.

But… Circumstance does find moments of weight when the oppression in the Tehran society becomes clear. Just as we wonder, “How can a 16-year old girl possibly get away with dubbing the film Milk in Farsi or downing shots at an outrageous night club be feasible?” the Morality police show up.  When the girls are fighting for themselves and for each other, that’s when the film becomes a risk. When we are reminded that living in Tehran means constantly living in danger, we care that our characters are safe.

Although the film couldn’t accomplish this fear and therefore investment in its viewers, the film’s making did upon it’s cast and crew and maybe this should be the reason to invest. Kesharaz knew shooting in Iran was out of the question, so Beirut became the location of choice due to its landscape’s physical similarity. But the production team had to be very cautious. The Shia armed force in Lebanon receives support from Iran and therefore the use of the word “Iran” or discussion of the film’s story was prohibited among its cast and crew. A modified script, in English when the film is actually in Persian, was submitted to the Lebanese government in order to receive approval for shooting.  The film was constantly being monitored and one wrong move could have sent any one of the team to jail. At Sundance Keshavarz was asked about the recent six-year prison sentence of Jafar Panahi, a progressive Iran filmmaker, and how she felt regarding his ban from making movies again in Iran. She remarked that it was very emotional for her, he being an influential figure in her own career, but that she “realized if you're going to do something, you should do it truthfully. If not, then don't even engage in the conversation."

And that’s why Circumstance is one to watch: because although it may have flaws in its structure and story, and at times steers away from poignant realism, it has a handful of incredible moments of truth. It has a writer and director fighting to unearth the atrocities and realities she’s witnessed growing up in Iran, and she’s not afraid to rub it in the mullah’s faces. In the end, the true beauty of the film lies in the fact that Keshavarz and her actors alike acknowledge the passion and dedication in the Iranian youth to change their circumstance.