Video Review: Circumstance an Idea Only Partially Realized

Directed by Maryam Keshavarz
Participant Media, 107 minutes, Unrated (sexuality), Farsi with subtitles
* *

This film from Iranian-American writer/director Maryam Keshavarz made a splash at Sundance back in 2011, but almost nowhere else. Lately it’s gotten a bit of new life courtesy of a DVD re-release. It's probably worth a rental, but it's at best a worthy idea only partially realized.

Circumstance could be called a film about song in a land that has abolished singing. Atafeh Hakimi (Nikohi Boosheri) dreams of becoming a belly dancing chanteuse, not exactly a sanctioned path in an Iran ruled by cheerless post-revolutionary mullahs. Atafeh has other issues as well. Her fate is inextricably linked with that of her orphaned BFF Shireen (Sarah Kazemy). They are typical teens filled with typical teen hormonal surges, desire to experiment, and urges to go wild. One person’s typical is another’s taboo, and virtually everything the two wish to try—listen to hip hop, smoke, dub porno films into Farsi, make out with boys, and make out with each other–is dangerously verboten.

Circumstance is ultimately a film about the gap between freedom and what a small cadre thinks the supernatural demands of them—right down to the point of foisting their values upon others. It’s also about how easy it is to be drawn to absolutism and intolerance and what it’s like to live in a society whose public norms are shrinking. Who can one trust under such conditions? We watch Atafeh’s brother Mehran (Reza Sixo Safai) transform himself from a druggie loser to an increasingly pious young man, but is that a good thing or not? Can Atafeh and Shireen trust him? And what happens if one makes a teenaged mistake in an oppressive society? Even worse, what if one simply cannot tolerate life amidst repression? Can even a hero of the revolution like Hakimi paterfamilias Firouz (Sohei Parsa) protect family members?

We see two Irans on the screen—the one like exists officially and publicly, and the one that exists in the shadows—in private homes, subterranean clubs, and inside outlawed affinity groups. Keshavarz has dared hope that underground copies of her film will make their way into Iran and he aired in that shadow world. Perhaps they will, though I wished it had been a better film that would justify the risks involved in viewing such a film.

I found Circumstance to be too disjointed. Big ideas are waved and dropped more than probed, which makes it ultimately a character study about two teens trying to circumnavigate sharia law. That’s fine, but such a film demands a tighter narrative structure than Keshavarz’s episodic scattershot approach. It also entails tamping down sexual voyeurism that titillates without illuminating, and it requires believable evil, not cardboard cutout bad guys. For Keshavarz, Circumstance was a labor of love and politics, but one too obviously so. I came away fascinated, but convinced that what was needed was a more detached script treatment from a different writer. It’s not a bad film, but it’s not a patch on what it could/should have been.
Whatever it was that ignited interest at Sundance eludes me and seems to have eluded others as well, as the film hasn't caught fire on video either. I admire Ms. Keshavarz’s bravery and values, but good politics just isn’t the same as good filmmaking. Her film is a classic tweener—too good to be a bad film, but not good enough to be a great one. 

Rob Weir

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