Film and controversy have converged time and time again. There are topics that are truly difficult for any director to tackle and sometimes the story the director chooses to tell results in criticism or anger.
Director Maryam Keshavarz has embraced this risk in her first feature fiction film, Circumstance, a story that takes viewers into a highly forbidden romance in Iran.
Teenagers Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri) and Shireen (Sarah Kazemy) display the stereotypical behavior of budding teenagers searching for personal and sexual freedom. But the risk is increased as they live in Iran, a country with morality police and strict expectations for women.
While on a car trip to the beach, Atafeh awakens to hear the orphaned Shireen crying in her sleep and calling out to her mother. Keshavarz uses this moment to introduce the story. After Atafeh holds Shireen and comforts her, the two lay side by side and Keshavarz cleverly changes the lighting and music as we discover this friendship is actually a romance.
Atafeh’s brother Mehran (Reza Sixo Safai) catches on to the girls’ closeness and the tension builds. Shireen eventually finds herself married to Mehran, much to Atafeh’s shock.
Touching on the issues of Iranian customs, family relations, drug use, religion and more, Keshavarz creates a tale that is intriguing, but does not reach its full potential. The acting is successful and Keshavarz allows the camera to linger on the actors’ faces in close-up shots that maximize emotion, but she does not make the story as heart-wrenching as it could be.
Though Boosheri and Kazemy are both charming and their chemistry is believable, there is not sufficient background on their relationship to make us sincerely sympathetic. We see the girls laugh, dance and become increasingly more intimate but there is not a single scene in the movie in which we see them having a full conversation — except about them running away.
We know the girls attend the same school but we don’t see their friendship develop. This makes it difficult to truly connect with the characters; Keshavarz is obviously committed to taking into consideration societal and familial issues with the girls’ relationship but a few more scenes of pure interaction would have helped viewers connect with their situation.
The most touching scene comes when Atafeh’s mother Azar (Nasrin Pakkho) speaks to Atafeh after a run-in with the law.
Azar tells her daughter, “Sometimes we must accept our reality,” later singing to her to recall the days when Atafeh was a young girl without a care in the world. But Atafeh does not seem to feel any empathy toward her parents, a trait that actually works against the audience’s ability to empathize with her.
The drama and tension build but never fully boil over. When Atafeh discovers Mehran has been recording her every activity via hidden cameras and knows everything, her reaction is not given adequate screen time. Keshavarz only gives us one abrupt and mostly unsatisfying scene after this discovery before ending the film. Mehran’s motives for setting up cameras in his own home in the first place also go unexplained.
The talented cast brings to life complex characters, but the film seems unclear about where to put this talent. Mehran is an especially complex character but sometimes the focus is too much on him and his own story. Kesharvaz dedicates a lot of time to the dynamics of the family as a whole and as individuals, but this makes the film overpopulated with characters; the real focus is clearly on Atafeh and Shireen from the beginning and it should have remained so.
In the end, Kesharvaz fails to make as much of an impact as other films dealing with struggles regarding homosexuality.
And despite winning the audience award at Sundance in the Dramatic Competition, Circumstance only grazes the surface.