CIRCUMSTANCE is the story of two young women who try to live the lives they desire under an increasingly brutal dictatorial government. Materially privileged Atafeh Hakimi (Nikohl Boosheri) introduces her socially stigmatized friend, Shireen Arshadi (Sarah Kazemy), to the Tehran underground. There after school and before curfew, behind blinds blocking sunlight from makeshift clubs, the girls realize the possibility of obtaining freedom from the very real and oppressive Morality Police, as well as their families. In love, they dream of starting a new chapter of their lives in Dubai -the gateway to freedom- but there are obstacles to overcome, and they exist close to home.
Mehran, Atafeh’s older brother, comes home from a rehabilitation center and finds his way to a position of power through his relations at a local mosque, where an older man invites him to work as a paid informer for the Morality Police. While no religious statements are made by either of the leading ladies in this film, there is a fear of fanaticism lurking just beneath the surface of their gaze, their intimacy is restrained: they do not make the rules.
In a particularly cutting scene, Atafeh sits down to dinner with Mehran and shares a piece of her chicken with him. He ignores her kind gesture, saying “I pray, so I know my soul is clean. I’m not so sure about you.” Atafeh quickly realizes that her brother has become a part of the system she never thought her family would have to face up close, including her lover and friend, Shireen. Without a word to Shireen, her mild mannered mother, or her endearing, liberal father, she makes the decision to get out at whatever cost.
Certain details of the story come into focus slower than others. For example, the very first scene establishes the flirtation between Shireen and Atafeh and the plot thickens into something passionate and sweet. On the other hand, we never really learn the full story of Shireen’s parents, whose anti-government status is alluded to throughout the film as something that makes Shireen an outcast of sorts- merely tolerated. Were the parents devoted revolutionaries or professors who published humanist works? I suppose it depends on whether or not one believes professors are, necessarily, revolutionaries. Shireen is considered -by no fault of her own- to be a loose woman, and when she is caught up in a whirlwind of trouble through her relation to Atafeh and her friends in the underground, her options of getting out alive are presented as more than limited. This is where we learn that Mehran is the destructive player in the plot.
After Atafeh and Shireen are caught by the Morality Police, Atafeh is bailed out, but Shireen experiences the effects of an ultimatum: she must marry the informer, Mehran, her lover’s brother, or, face unnamed but much assumed consequences (death, beating, torture). The degradation Shireen goes through is understated- almost visually jaded, blurred, to viewers: she seems to be captured in slow motion, reacting to circumstances, unaware of the consequences of her rebellion. Atafeh, on the other hand, walks coolly through fire, with a smirk on her face, in spite of her fear. The women split into two as their world goes belly-up. Atafeh makes her way out of the home soon after Shireen enters it as the closeted, emotionally abused wife of Mehran. Atafeh has no one left to fight for but herself, and she decides to exit into a new life without bidding farewell to the old.
The beauty of this film is expansive and multi-layered. There is no one source of sensory satisfaction that leads the way: the audience experiences the world of these characters through music, singing, seeing people dance and enjoy elaborate looking meals, and the many and varied ways in which the importance of touch is conveyed as a medium of both oppression and love, sometimes all at once. Even in a social system in which any citizen can become an object of brutality, the joyfulness of family dinners, trips to the seaside, and parties, are overwhelming- they are alive, undercover. There is beauty and there is cruelty. Director/writer Maryam Keshavarz seems to be committed to expressing the existence of freedom for girls that stretches from Iran to wherever the wind takes Atafeh at the end of the film.
Interestingly, there is not as much violent imagery as one might expect of a film set at the boiling point of present-day revolution. In fact, the idea of violence is shifted from the outright physical abuse we see in later scenes, to that which itches beneath the surface- in threats under careful smiles, the provocation of love to someone who hates, and in frequent cuts to surveillance footage. Violence, like oppression, does not need to be physical to make people submit in fear. When Shireen quietly chooses her fate and Atafeh commits herself to making a new life, the audience is left in the middle: why couldn’t they both make it out? Why was this not a love story to the end? As the tagline goes: let no love fall victim to circumstance. Only lovers can choose what love makes of them.