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A luscious, sensual journey into the underworld of Iranian youth culture, Maryam Keshavarz’s debut feature “Circumstance” is one of the biggest indie-film discussion topics of the year. Winner of an audience award at Sundance, “Circumstance” was then selected as the closing-night film at New York’s New Directors/New Films festival. That reflects Keshavarz’s smoldering, art-house-friendly pictorial sense and immense ambition, but also the circumstances under which the film was made and its strikingly topical story and setting.
“Circumstance” was shot entirely in Lebanon, probably the most liberal of all Middle Eastern nations, and even there it apparently wasn’t easy. Considering that it documents a steamy lesbian affair between two Iranian teenage girls, conducted amid the casual drug use and hip-hop nightclubs of Tehran (almost literally under the noses of the ruling mullahs), it’s remarkable that it got made at all. Keshavarz reportedly warned her cast of expatriates that they might never be able to return to Iran after making the movie, and it’s hard to imagine any future Iranian society liberal enough to allow “Circumstance” to screen legally. (On the other hand, I feel certain that samizdat copies will be hot black-market commodities.)
As to the question of whether “Circumstance” is actually a good film, or just one with an important story to tell, a high degree of difficulty and some hot all-girl action, I think the verdict is mixed. (I’m being more than a little facetious; this movie may indeed attract some viewers for prurient reasons, but there’s no actual nudity or NC-17 content.) I was tremendously impressed with the lustrous, widescreen images shot by Brian Rigney Hubbard, and Keshavarz crafts an atmospheric Orwellian fable about an intense security state where even the most intimate acts, from two girls alone in a bedroom to a group of friends watching a smuggled movie (“Milk,” in this case), are not truly private. Her two young leads, Nikohl Boosheri as Atafeh, daughter of a wealthy and liberal Tehran family, and Sarah Kazemy as the orphaned Shireen, whose parents were anti-revolutionary writers, are gorgeous and give unaffected performances. If Atafeh’s increasingly devout ex-addict brother, Mehran (Reza Sixo Safai), is a bit of a cardboard villain, I blame the screenwriting.
When Keshavarz is introducing us to the secret world of teenage Tehran, where girls shed their headscarves and floor-length wraps to reveal designer minidresses, and condoms and Ecstasy are handed around to all, “Circumstance” has a powerful and hypnotic allure. As an exercise in style that draws a little on the classic Iranian cinema of Abbas Kiarostami but much more on ambiguous, erotic Western art film, it feels more jumbled and uncertain. Keshavarz cites Atom Egoyan, the Canadian chronicler of voyeurism, and cryptic Argentine fabulist Lucrecia Martel among her influences, and she strives for that level of narrative and thematic complexity without quite getting there. Still, by any measure this is a powerful debut film and a remarkable tale of oppression and liberation, and one that leaps right to the top of the unfortunately brief list of LGBT-themed films set in the Islamic world.
“Circumstance” is now playing in New York and Los Angeles. It opens Sept. 9 in Boston, Chicago, Hartford, Conn., Houston, New Haven, Conn., Palm Springs, Calif., San Francisco, San Jose, Calif., and Washington; Sept. 16 in Atlanta, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, San Diego, Columbus, Ohio, and Austin, Texas; Sept 23 in Denver, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, Portland, Ore., Santa Barbara, Calif., Santa Fe, N.M., and Seattle; and Sept. 30 in Knoxville, Tenn., Las Vegas and Madison, Wis., with more cities to follow.