It’s no secret that Iran is one of the most hostile places in the world for lesbian, gay and bisexual people (interestingly, however, Iran is a bit progressive — though far from ideal — when it comes to transgender rights). In 2007, during a visit to Columbia University, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad famously declared that homosexuality does not exist in Iran. And according to “We Are a Buried Generation,” a report issued last winter by Human Rights Watch, “The environment in Iran today is such that sexual minorities, who are often the victims of abuse and violence, are instead treated as culprits; the state appears to officially sanction harassment and abuse of LGBT persons by private actors and even police; and LGBT persons are often seen as diseased, criminals, or corrupt agents of Western culture.”
Because of the dangers faced by LGB Iranians who come out, the bulk of queer Iranian visibility remains in the diaspora. Enter Maryam Keshavarz’s new film, Circumstance. Born in the U.S., Keshavarz is an Iranian-American filmmaker, and Circumstance — a film that depicts a lesbian relationship between teenage girls in Tehran — was filmed in Lebanon. The fact that it was made outside of Iran by diasporic artists allows Circumstance to explore the topics of homosexuality, religion and politics honestly, without fear of punishment by the Iranian government.
Circumstance tells the story of Atafeh, the daughter of a wealthy, traditional yet fairly secular family, and Shireen, the daughter of intellectuals who were executed for opposing the revolution. To the outside observer, Atafeh and Shireen appear to be incredibly close friends, but behind closed doors, they are lovers. Their relationship and safety is threatened by Atafeh’s brother, Mehran, a born-again religious fundamentalist who goes to any extreme necessary to preserve morality and honor in his community. Throughout the film, Atafeh and Shireen fantasize about escaping to Dubai together, and at the end of the film, it is unclear as to whether or not their dreams will be realized. Though at times the film is melodramatic, it is always sincere. It gracefully explores the homophobia inherent in fundamentalist religion without condemning Islam or Iranian culture as a whole. It is a sensitive, sexual, beautifully-made film.
Many reviews are criticizing Circumstance for its sexual content. Roger Ebert criticizes the film for straying into “distracting eroticism,” while The Daily Beast features an interview with an anonymous Iranian lesbian who states that “instead of showing the hidden sides of the lesbian romance, this film is closer to a porn film, as it lacks depth and mostly shows the physical aspects of the relationship.” For Keshavarz, however, the graphic content is very intentional, and she does not regret including it in the film. From the Wall Street Journal:
Initially, [Keshavarz] says early drafts of the script were far more veiled and symbolic. “Everything was implied; nothing was shown,” she says.
But as she developed the script at the Sundance Writers Lab, she realized she was afraid to be more direct, “because a lot of my family lives in Iran and I didn’t want to jeopardize going back.”
“But as I started writing more truthfully and the characters became more real as opposed to symbols, I really started to strip away my self-censorship,” she continues, “and I realized that if I was going to make the film, I had to make it as truthfully as possible…”
I agree with Keshavarz that the sexual content is vital to telling this story honestly. It bothers me how often gay relationships are desexualized when depicted on-screen. (The Oscar-winning film Milk is particularly guilty of this.) But because Keshavarz knew the risks she would need to take to make her film as honest as possible, she went all the way. And it works. I found the relationship between Atafeh and Shireen to be incredibly natural. It isn’t clear if their physical intimacy begins prior to the film or during it, but because we see them during their most private moments, I never doubted their passion or their love for each other. Because the viewers are able to see everything — how they interact in public, how they sneak subtle romantic moments under the watchful eyes of family and the government, how they relate to one another in complete privacy — we are able to grasp the full extent of their relationship, which allows us to understand it more.
There is no question that Circumstance is an explicit film (though I’d hardly say it rises to the level of pornographic), but I believe it needs to be. The fact is, there are very few positive representations of homosexual desire among Iranians. And though Atafeh and Shireen’s relationship is not without hardship and challenges, the love that they share is depicted as incredibly genuine and beautiful. Such love needs to be documented and shared. Circumstance isn’t a perfect film, but it’s a vitally important one, because it presents images that are not seen often enough.
Circumstance is playing in limited release in the U.S. — click here to see when it’s opening at a theatre near you. To learn more about the film, watch the trailer below. (Contains subtitles.)