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Circumstances of the heart

By | 2011-09-15T09:00:00-04:00 September 15th, 2011|Entertainment|

By Gary M. Kramer

“Circumstance” is a remarkable film that sensitively depicts the struggles of two teenage lesbians, Atafeh (Nikhol Boosheri) and Shireen (Sarah Kazemy), in contemporary Iran. The story is based in part on bisexual writer/director Maryam Keshavarz’s own experiences as a teenager, and reveals how these teenagers find ways to express themselves sexually and otherwise, while living under state control.
The filmmaker, who lives in America, visited Iran regularly every summer until her controversial “Circumstance” (shot in Lebanon) prompted her to be banned from the country.
“Before I made this movie, I had the unique privilege to be able to go back and forth,” Keshavarz says. “Not anymore.”
In addition, Keshavarz reveals that she has been “threatened from anonymous sources, and been railed against by the government.” But it hasn’t been all bad. “I’ve had emails from hundreds of folks in Iran who are dying to see the film,” she notes. “I’m pretty happy. I had the freedom to make the film.”
The film, about forbidden love, is already resonating with Iranians. “Iranians have many layers of their personalities. So much of who they are has to be hidden. Even within the relative freedom of underground world, these girls’ exploration of sexuality is another subculture within a subculture – another layer of duality, another layer of what they have to hide to really express themselves.”
These intertwined themes of gender and sexuality form the basis for much of the film’s drama. One of the ways the characters communicate their forbidden desires is through dancing. “Circumstance” opens with a fantasy bellydancing scene. Other sequences have the girls attending a secret house party, or going to a nightclub. At Atafeh’s home, the girls bond while singing and dancing to “Total Eclipse of the Heart” on TV.
“The idea was for me to express real life and fantasy,” says Keshavarz. “The state can never control your imagination.”
Atafeh and Shireen physically express themselves through intimacy too, and Keshavarz makes their sensuality erotic, not explicit. “It was important for me not to desexualize them,” she explains about the inclusion of several racy same-sex love scenes. “There are no men in the girls’ fantasies. There is more expressed sexuality in fantasy than in reality. In their real time, it’s very slight what they do. In their fantasy, it’s much more sexual, more erotic. It’s a space where they can really let loose.”
She goes on, addressing how Middle Eastern women suffer when it comes to representations of sexuality. Being queer in the Middle East – except in Turkey and Israel – is illegal. “Circumstance” navigates queer identity carefully. Keshavarz says, “More liberal, more educated people can speak about (homosexuality), but it’s dangerous, so it’s like a very controlled conversation with very select people.
“It’s something people don’t talk about.”
“Circumstance” is revelatory, especially in its depiction of Iranian teenage desire. When it came to the portrayal of sexuality, Keshavarz made sure to protect her actresses. Boosheri was only 18 when she made the film, but she identified strongly with her role and had a complete understanding of Atafeh, who Keshavarz admits to being put in “an impossible situation.”
“Circumstance” is also a courageous film, depicting what Atafeh and Shireen must endure in Iran. Sometimes this is physical abuse, with women’s bodies being violated. Although these scenes are discretely filmed, they are quite horrifying. When Mehran is involved, the abuse is mental, and equally shocking.
Mehran is a particularly creepy, troubling character. His insidious behavior, surreptitiously videotaping his family, for example, creates much of the film’s tension.
“The thing about (Mehran) that is so important is that he’s pleasant on the outside, and his (nastiness) is so much underneath the skin,” Keshavarz says. “That’s so much creepier.”
Mehran becomes a fundamentalist Muslim who is loyal to Iran. He frequently condemns his sister’s wild behavior, causing friction within the family. “They are opposite reactions to the same environment,” Keshavarz acknowledges. “Atafeh goes in one direction, and her brother goes in another.”
The filmmaker has seven brothers, one of whom is her fraternal twin. It comes to reason that her upbringing may be how she constructed the dual narratives of Atafeh’s downward spiral and Mehran’s efforts toward redemption.
“I never thought of this!” Keshavarz exclaims. “Maybe I did subconsciously. Perhaps because I’m a twin, and had someone born with me – and because we are different genders – we are very different and express ourselves differently.”
One of the dramatic turning points in “Circumstance” involves Atafeh and Shireen being arrested by the secret police. Keshavarz specifically had the teenagers caught for a crime that did not involve their sexuality. What happens – and it involves Mehran – changes the course of the girls’ relationship, and is quite haunting.
“Circumstance” ultimately may box its characters into corners, but the film offers hope that they may find an escape. The powerful ending should also prompt viewers to reflect on the question that opens the film: “If you could be anywhere, where would you be?”
Keshavarz answers that same question herself. “Wow! In the world? In my imagination? Or in reality?” She laughs. “Right now, I’m pretty happy with where I am. ‘Circumstance’ was really hard to make, and because the film has gotten a great response, I’m able to press forth with my next project a lot easier. I’m in a very unique place. I’m very happy right now. Although I’d probably be happier if I was on a beach in Maui!”

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Between The Lines has been publishing LGBTQ-related content in Southeast Michigan since the early '90s. This year marks the publication's 27th anniversary.