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September 26, 2011

Okay, okay, let’s get this out of the way right up front: yes, this is a movie about very attractive Persian lesbians, and that’s probably a large part of its draw. That’s certainly the thrust of the marketing, which is disappointing because Circumstance is more than just an excuse to get two hot girls kissing.

I’m pretty sure that whatever structural difficulties women may face in the United States or other western democracies, life is a bit different in Tehran. No, they don’t have to wear the burqa, but they still live under many restrictions. They must keep their heads covered, for one, unless at home with the only males around being family members. And this is on top of the generally onerous restrictions on behavior; alcohol is forbidden, as is a lot of music and film. The penalties are also harsher than we might expect; every illegal action, we hear, will be interpreted as political rebellion. Getting caught in an illicit private party taking a shot of vodka is not like getting caught smoking pot here, it’s a bit closer to treason. If you add homosexuality to this mix — despite the assurances of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that there are no gay people in Iran — it can get very uncomfortable.

And it’s this untenable situation that writer-director Maryam Keshavarz tries to get across in the film, centered on Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri), daughter of a wealthy family. At school, her best friend is Shireen (Sarah Kazemy), who lives with her uncle and grandmother after her parents — both intellectual professors and writers — are no longer around, for reasons we are left to understand.

The most striking thing about Atafeh and Shireen is how utterly normal they are, from a western standpoint. They giggle over schoolgirl jokes, sing “Total Eclipse of the Heart” along with _American Idol_, sneak out to have fun and stretch their growing independence. And, as it happens, they fall in love. Atafeh’s family is just as normal; she has a doting mother and father (Nasrin Pakkho and Soheil Parsa), each with important careers, a beautiful home, a car, an an annoying older brother, Mehran(Reza Sixo Safai).

Mehran, though, is the biggest reminder that we are still in Iran. He had a touch of rebellion himself, including a bit of a drug problem. He has recently returned from what we assume is a jail term; his father proclaims him “good as new”, but it’s clear he’s a ghost of his former self. He rejects his former love of music, lashes out at addicts with none of the compassion we might expect from someone who’s been through the same experience, and quickly falls under the influence of a local leader of the gasht-e ershâd — the conservative “morality police”.

Yes, there are some titillating scenes, some of which do seem a touch gratuitous. On the other hand, I don’t want to come off as the sort to say lesbian relationships are fine so long as they don’t actually act on it. It’s a dangerous balancing act, and even if I’m uncertain about the result I applaud Keshavarz for attempting it.

But the Iranian politics are more dangerous by far than the western gender politics — the movie was filmed in Beirut as it obviously couldn’t be made in Tehran itself — and I applaud her all the more for taking that risk. I can’t help but think Atafeh was named for Atefah Sahaaleh, making this not only risky, but downright provocative.

The film Keshavarz has crafted gives a compelling glimpse inside a Tehran that, for many of us, is just as opaque and mysterious as cold war Moscow. We see a face looking back that is surprisingly close to our own. No matter the political divides between our nations, we cannot see the Iranian people as being so different from ourselves.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.

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