Circumstance (2011): Maryam Keshavarz’s Winner of Sundance Audience Award

Roadside Attractions, August 26, 2011

An absorbing, sharply made debut feature by Maryam Keshavarz, Circumstance tells the story of two rebellious young girls flouting their verve and outré sexuality as a personal protest against the repressive and regulated social order of contemporary Iran.

The crowds at Sundance, where the film world premiered in the dramatic competition, clearly responded warmly. The movie captured the significant prestigious audience award, which bodes well for commercial appeal. Participant Media acquired the acquisition rights.

Iranian-born, American-trained Keshavaraz shows a revealing and powerful feel for animating the interior consciousness of her young women. She impresses not only with her formal technical command and excellent work with actors, but the fearlessness of her approach. She eschews allegory and metaphor, tackling her subject head-on and refusing to back down.

By privileging the point of view of two earthy, vital, intensely sensual young women, the filmmaker makes the personal arena one that’s deeply political.

The movie echoes, thematically, other Sundance competition entries, like Dee Rees’s “Pariah” and Rashaad Ernesto Green’s “Gun Hill Road,” of furtive desire and forbidden behavior set within a very culturally conservative milieu. The key difference here is the consequence of their behavior being found out.

Keshavarz is clearly influenced by the work of Jafar Panahi, the great and recently imprisoned Iranian director whose movies, from “The Circle” to “Crimson Gold,” paint a disturbing portrait of confinement for women in Iran’s deeply patriarchal social structure. (The movie was shot in Beirut.) Their private revolt takes different forms, both subtle and underplayed, like the opening scene of the two teenagers, Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri) and Shireen (Sarah Kazemy), at an outdoor assembly at school.

They are outfitted in the traditional school dress, chadors that cover their bodies and wearing veils that disguise their faces. They play along by the rules, to a point, surreptitiously passing notes, the earliest indication of their nonconformist impulses. Atafeh, direct and quick thinking, is the virtual leader, protective of the willowy and astounding beautiful Shireen.

It is clear the two young women, given the ease and comfort they move about each other, the grace and subtlety of their private exchanges, are drawn to each other, more than likely in love. The beauty of the movie is teasing out the particulars of the relationship, finding tension, power and an intoxicating directness.

Working with the very talented cinematographer Brian Rigney Hubbard, Keshavarz achieves a dynamic and colorful stylistic fluency in the riot of colors and the bounce and movements of the two young women. Realizing the inherent limitations of their relationship, the two play out their own fantasies of escape and relief, including one mesmerizing, erotically tinged sequence of the full frontal nude Shireen fully submitting to her young lover.

Atafeh in particular, whose mother Azar (Nasrin Pakkho) is a doctor, is a child of affluence and power. Her father, Firouz (Soheil Parsa), is a Berkeley-educated industrialist whose wealth protects him from the mullahs.
By contrast, the situation of Shireen is marred by tragedy. Her parents, political dissidents rumored to be anti-revolutionaries, died some years earlier, no doubt murdered by the state. She now lives with her uncle and grandmother under far more restrictive circumstances. Her friendship with Atafeh opens up untold possibilities. The two carry out a fanciful and increasingly dreamy counter existence as debutantes who haunt Tehran’s underground art and music scene.
The wild card is the return of the prodigal son, Atafeh’s brother Mehran (Reza Sixo Safai). His promising classical music career was derailed by his drug addiction. “I’m not going to [screw] up again,” he tells his father. Renouncing his past, he turns toward religious instruction and adopts a hard-line, uncompromising stance on public behavior and private morality. In love with Shireen, he plots to lessen his sister’s influence.

In “Circumstance,” the two young women revel in their freedom by drinking, hanging out, playing their music full blast inside the car and going frequenting underground bars. Unknown to them, in the most chilling aspect of the story, their activities are being monitored, through elaborate state surveillance, of virtually every move they make. In fact, their most playful act, helping dub a Farsi-language print of Gus Van Sant’s outlawed gay movie “Milk,” is being watched by the authorities.

If the source is obvious, the reasons and motivation are obscure. What makes “Circumstance” a rigorous yet thoughtful piece of work are the many ways to read the characters and situations. Rather than sharpening the focus, Keshavarz beautifully dangles several cascading and echoing parts. If the young women implicitly make the political personal, Mehran’s behavior reverses the dynamics.

From the daring of the conceits to the expressively beautiful faces of the two lead actresses, “Circumstance” holds and rivets your attention. It ends ambiguously, but there is never a doubt about the filmmakers’  talents.