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Review: ‘Circumstance’

Underground Youth Culture in Iran

Above: "Circumstance" looks to Iran's underground youth culture.

"Circumstance" (opened September 23 at Landmark's Hillcrest Cinemas) had it's San Diego premiere at FilmOut last month and was one of the best films at the festival.

"Circumstance" looks to two young Tehranian women feeling the typical teenage urge to rebel but within the context of a repressive society where rebellion can have serious consequences. Shireen (Sarah Kazemy) is the daughter of disappeared intellectual while her best friend Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri) is the daughter of wealthy and well-connected parents. The girls hang out at illegal clubs and parties, experiment with sex, and help a friend dub the Hollywood film "Milk" into Farsi. None of this would seem that daring for an American teen but life is very different in Iran. Even dubbing "Milk" becomes a political act as the friend hopes to distribute it underground as a tool to encourage revolution... or counter revolution among Iranian youths. But for the girls, the film has an added layer of meaning as their friendship slips into sexual attraction. Complicating the situation is the fact that Atafeh's brother (Reza Sixo Safai) has returned from prison and moved toward Islamic fundamentalism. He takes a position with the country’s Morality Police, and begins to spy on his own family with tragic results.

Persian-American director Maryam Keshavarz makes her feature film debut with "Circumstance." She gives us a glimpse into Iran's underground world of youth culture not often seen by outsiders. She gives us a window into Iran's repressive society in a manner similar to what Jafar Panahi has explored in his films "The Circle," "The Mirror," and "Offside." Keshavarz's film is not quite as rich or complex as Panahi's films are but she definitely has a passion for her material. She uses footage of the characters from security cameras to help tell her story and convey how the country tries to control every aspect of people's lives, leaving them no private life. She shows how things that for American teens would be typical rites of passage and casual rebellion -- like staying out late partying, having pre-marital sex, dancing, listening to rock and roll -- can have serious repercussions and even arrest.

 Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri) and Shireen (Sarah Kazemy) are friends in "Circumstance."

Participant Media

Above: Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri) and Shireen (Sarah Kazemy) are friends in "Circumstance."

The film sometimes moves awkwardly and self-consciously but always with a fierce honesty and depth of emotion. Keshavarz develops the two leads well, balancing the story between their intimate emotional changes and a broader commentary about Iran's repressive society. Keshavarz reveals a good eye for visual storytelling and for conveying her characters' inner emotional life with compassion.

The film also benefits from a pair of mesmerizing young actresses, Kazemy and Boosheri, in the lead roles. They convey the multiple levels of rebellion these young girls feel -- they want to rebel against an older generation, against moral restrictions, against oppressive laws, and against gender inequalities.

"Circumstance" (in Persian with English subtitles and rated R for sexual content, language and some drug use) is a promising debut feature that that adds to a growing list of compelling films about human rights issues in the Middle East.

Participant Media encourages social action with the films they release. Here is their page for suggested actions you can take regarding issues raised in "Circumstance."

Companion viewing: "The Circle," "Offside," "The Mirror," "The May Lady," "Caramel," "Persepolis," "The Day I Became a Woman"

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