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Driven by lyrical tension and sensuality, Circumstance is a striking and impassioned debut effort from Iranian-American filmmaker Maryam Keshavarz that cohesively sculpts the social and political context of modern-day Tehran within the story of two spirited teenage girls that share each other’s discontent, passions, and desires.
Atafeh (Nikohl Booshari) comes from a privileged, intellectual family and lives in a home filled with music, love, and laughter. Her best friend, Shireen (Sarah Kazemy), also comes from a liberal background, but no longer enjoys the liberties she did growing up. The two 16-year-olds take part in the underground club life, indulge in dreams of living abroad, and find a haven in their physical and emotional relationship with one another.
Atafeh’s older brother, Mehran (Reza Sixo Safai), back from drug rehabilitation, finds haven in religion, steadily delving into radical Islam — a change that affects the lives of the two girls significantly.
Circumstance, the winner of an Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, revolves around a very common, maybe even over-used theme — teenage girls that come of age and deal with sexuality through lesbian encounters as best friends. With Atafeh and Shireen, living in a world in which females live within extremely rigid legal and social confines, it makes sense that they feel safest exploring their sexuality and developing emotional connections with each other.
Furthering the story is the cast. Booshari, Kazemy and Safai are young, fresh, exciting, beautiful, and seductive, and they combine that energy with firm talent, generating compelling performances that are able to convey the struggle they live in and the struggle living inside them. As Mehran, Safai seamlessly transforms from hurt and disturbed to radical and sinister, encompassing the demons of extremism but still remaining human. Booshari, as the concrete, strong-willed rebel, is a fearless and spirited Atafeh. And, the stunning Kazemy encompasses the shame, fear, and longing with which Shireen has a hard time coping.
Keshavarz, who wrote and directed the film, produces seductive filmmaking, contrasting images that are spacious and textured with images that are tight and harsh. Similarly, sounds of sweeping classic Persian music and pounding underground Persian hip-hop are expressive and enlivening.
Some see Circumstance as overtly sexual or as a film about hot teenage lesbians, but the sexuality does not outweigh a story that is likely to resonate with many people. The film has been deemed “Anti-Islamic” by the Iranian media and is prohibited in all Middle-Eastern countries, with the exception of Israel and Turkey, and that in itself is essentially what is at the core of this provocative film.
Sanela Djokovic is a writer living in the Bronx.
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