Victims of Circumstance

Forbidden apples: Atafeh and Shireen

Circumstance (2011) is the tale of two female friends in Iran and the development of their relationship.  Shireen (Sarah Kazemy) is the orphaned daughter of two radical professors and Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri) is the daughter of a wealthy family.

The two girls are shown doing normal teenage stuff, dressing up, singing, experimenting, sneaking out to clubs and generally getting up to no good.  The difference here of course is that they are living in modern day Tehran and their actions are likely to hold very heavy consequences if they are caught.  The feeling of the oppression is like a think blanket over the whole film, to the extent that you feel nervous watching them doing innocent things (by western standards) like knocking back the shots or discussing Sex and the City. 

Atafeh’s brother Mehran (Reza Sixo Safai) is a recovered drug addict who has just returned to the family and is affected by a bout of newfound piety that disturbs the rest of the family.  Atafeh is wary of her brother and his desire to conform to the restrictions of Iranian society, and her caution is entirely justified.  Mehran is a slippery character, leering around corners, spying on the girls and eventually setting up hidden CCTV cameras in the family home.  In a way Mehran represents all of the oppressive features of Iran that Atafeh rails against, and this is not a sympathetic portrayal.

The relationship between the two girls escalates quickly from over friendly touching and joking around to a full blown sexual affair.  Shireen goes to the beach with Atafeh’s family and the girls find their first opportunity to reveal their feelings and sleep together.  This is risqué stuff for a film set in Iran, so it should be no surprise that the film is banned and American director Maryam Keshavarz is no longer allowed to enter the country.

At times I am not sure how accurate the film is in its portrayal of Iran.  While still away at the very early one morning Shireen and Atafeh both strip down to their underwear to go swimming in sea.  The day before both girls were seen to be hot an irritated in headscarves and long clothes, while a lot of men wonder around in the background comfortably dressed in swimming trunks.  This is an infuriating double standard to be sure, but I find it unlikely that the girls would do something so fatally dangerous the next day.  Iran does not strike me as the sort of place where it is ever safe to act on impulse, especially if you are a girl.  I also thought that the girls would have to cover their heads a lot more closely, whereas apart from the scenes shot at school they seem to get away with quite loose headscarves in public.

When the girls get taken into custody by the morality police for going to an underground nightclub the director mercifully does not go into great detail.  I’ve heard whisperings about women being whipped and subjected to other abuse, and Atafeh is physically examined – but the horror of custody is about as terrible as it needs to be in this film, the hints are enough.  I did worry at various points that the film might be heading towards some kind of violent end, but luckily it didn’t come to that.

Following the shame of being arrested Mehran suggests to Shireen that he has the power to wipe her record if she wishes.  At home her uncle tells her that she must get married in order to overcome the shame of her actions.  Reluctantly she enters into an engagement at the disgust of Atafeh, and the relationship between the girls quickly begins to unravel.

As there is of course no chance that this film could have been produced in Iran, instead it was shot in Lebanon.  Even this required an elaborate web of lies about the content of film to the extent that a fake script was sent to the authorities.  The film was made in a fairly oppressive environment and this tension and anxiety seeps into everyone’s performance, creating an authentic atmosphere for the film, though no doubt stressful for all involved.  The audience should welcome this, as we ultimately end up with a sensitive portrayal of life in modern Iran.  The position Shireen and Atafeh end up in is frustrating; their choices are limited and incredibly difficult.

I can’t watch a film about Iran without considering British and Iranian relations, currently at an all time low.  In 2011 the Iranian government voted to expel the British Ambassador and the British Embassy in Tehran was subsequently set on fire following a demonstration.  In retaliation the British government decided that it was no longer appropriate for Iran to retain an embassy in London.  The Foreign Office advises against all travel to Iran, even for those holding dual nationality.


Rebellious youth: Persepolis

Circumstance is not my first brush with Iranian film, a few years ago I saw Persepolis (technically a French film, though dealing exclusively with Iran) by Marjane Satrapi.  Persepolis is the brilliantly animated story of Satrapi’s childhood and escape from Iran and offers a fascinating perspective on the country.  This film made me more aware of British-Iranian relations, most notably British meddling over oil and the scandal of Britain selling weapons to both sides during the Iran-Iraq war in the 80s.  Rebuilding a relationship at this time looks to be a long way off.


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