Thursday, October 27, 2011

Cinematically Inclined: "Circumstance"

Ed. N.: This article originally appeared in my series of film reviews for the Vancouver International Film Festival, and has been edited slightly for the commercial release.

Atafeh (Nikhol Boosheri) and Shireen (Sarah Kazemy) are teenagers living in Tehran. Shireen lives with her uncle and it is strongly implied that her parents left Iran due to their “subversive” ideas. Atafeh is from a well-to-do Ismaili family, to accomplished professional parents. For fun, her father tests her knowledge of classical recordings (Pablo Casals is a particular favourite, it seems). Her older brother Mehran (Reza Sixo Safai) is a former junkie, fresh from detox, who has discovered Allah. Atafeh and Shireen fall in love and dream of escaping their circumstances, fancying not only each other but a life together in Dubai. Meanwhile, Mehran’s rehabilitation has given way to an increasingly fundamental point of view, one worlds away from his old party days. Coupled with his growing erotic obsession with Shireen, he becomes more dangerous as he grows increasingly sure of himself in his new identity, and suspects that the girls are up to something in private. The girls also have regular clubbing friends, including two closeted gay men, one of whom is intent on dubbing Milk into Persian for distribution on the black market.

 This is a film on contemporary Iran and the dichotomy between the outward display of conservative values in public, contrasted with the exciting underground nightlife that can only be accessed with passwords and subtle nods of the head for the initiated. This underworld is dancing on a knife’s edge, as the morality police could swoop in at any moment, ready to make arrests and shut the joint down.

Despite the temptation to make the film into a heavy-handed lecture on the lack of LGBT (and for that matter women’s) rights in parts of the Middle East, director Maryam Keshavarz brings a light touch to the work, almost as if she were caressing the most erotic part of the human body, wherever it might be (on you). To heighten the forbidden love and just how dangerous the lovers’ predicament is, the camera switches stocks every so often, shifting the focus to an unknown CCTV feed, demonstrating that they could be caught and punished anywhere, anytime, for lesser offences such as playing western music too loudly in their car or letting too thick a lock of hair peek out from underneath their veils. Imagine the consequences if the true nature of their love were exposed. Keshavarz understands that sometimes, all you need is a look in your eye, or the unspoken presence of a key character in a scene, that gives you all need to know. This is a film so intimate that it’s almost as if we were eavesdropping on inner monologue.

That this is Keshavarz’s directorial debut, one filmed in secret in Beirut and with a powder keg of a subject matter, makes this an even more remarkable accomplishment. The actors and creative team, all of whom are from Iran or of Iranian descent, made "last visits" to their homeland, because once the authorities see this film, they may never be allowed to return to Iran without facing serious penal consequences, all of which are legally sanctioned. That, folks, is dedication and absolute fearlessness.

Director Keshavarz with the cast, receiving the Sundance
Audience Award in January 2011
Circumstance received the Audience Award at Sundance and is easily one of the best films of the year. The film was presented at VIFF with co-sponsor Vancouver Queer Film Festival, with star (and recent Best Actress winner at the LA LGBT Film Festival) Boosheri present to introduce her breakthrough performance.

Circumstance opens in limited commercial release today in Vancouver, having enjoyed a healthy run in New York, Los Angeles and Toronto in the last few weeks. For more information, check out the film’s website and this thoughtful New York Times article. The website lists five things you can do in a checklist to build awareness of the film, and to raise awareness of this pressing issue of human rights. Given that creating art in certain parts of the world can lead to consequences as grotesque as this, sometimes making make-belief hits a little too close to home.