Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun May 01, 2011 8:53 pm 
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Bad girls and a warped brother in Teheran

With Circumstance (Sharāyiṭ) Iranian-American first-time director Maryam Keshavarz has provided an extraordinarily bold picture of the Teheran middle class (particularly a young gay minority) in revolt against Islamist repression. No one unwilling to burn bridges or unable to work outside Iran could have painted such a vivid picture (main cast members have two passports and most of the shooting was done in Lebanon). Too bad the young director's excitement over the lesbian love story of two high school girls and her fondness for pointless jump cuts in place of narrative links lead to excess and incoherence. It's often not clear whether the youthful indiscretions so vividly, not to say luridly, depicted, reflect a spirit of defiance, or sheer delight in what, in the culture at large is now seen and felt as depravity. This is a crucial distinction that is not clearly made. The frequent make-out scenes between Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri) and Shireen (Sarah Kazemy), some real and some imagined by one of them in luxuriously tacky Dubai nightclub or hotel settings, tend to veer into soft-core lesbian porn. The shock is the greater because, despite the international background of the cast and director, the film feels quite Iranian.

Keshavarz was born in the US but as she describes it has been back and forth to Iran her whole life. Her education is mostly American but also international. She studied comparative literature and near eastern studies at Northwestern and Michigan before taking an MFA in directing at NYU. She has made a documentary and a couple of prize-winning shorts. She has also taught at the University of Shiraz and studied Latin American literature in Argentina, where one of her shorts is set. In interviews Keshavarz has said Circumstance seems to strike familiar chords in people from many countries. However the film really stands out primarily as a racy depiction of the craziness and repression of Iran under the Mullahs. (As Robert Kohler points out in his Variety review, Circumstance's risqué content makes it "ineligible at most Mideast fests, but will set tongues wagging in the widespread Iranian diaspora community, where the pic is already a talking point.") In a beach scene men in Speedos sit around picnicking with women completely shrouded in black. Atafeh and Shireen go to parties and whip off their shawls revealing tight, shimmering, sexy dresses underneath, entering a scene where T-shirted men dance to rap, gay mixing with straight. The girls drink. They smoke. They curse the regime in the most vulgar and unladylike terms.

And yet Keshavarz has said she's not political, and that makes sense. Circumstance focuses primarily on a claustrophobic, hothouse depiction of life in a confused liberal Tehran environment. The director has focused before on a love triangle, and here it centers on Atafeh, Shireen, and Mehran (Reza Sixo Safai), Atafeh's older brother, a drug addict just out of jail and now taking refuge not just in piety -- he makes dad stop the car on a family outing just so he can pray by the roadside -- but in spying on the family, Lives of Others style, for the Morality Police.

Maybe anything is possible in contemporary Iran, but how exactly the thought police would engage a family member to use an elaborate computerized hidden camera system against his own family remains a mystery. The older brother is certainly puzzling, sinister one minute and sweet the next. He's a villain who's disturbing only because his logic isn't worked out. Keshavarz isn't much interested in developing character. She's mainly interested in having Mehran insist on marrying Shireen to drive a wedge between the two precocious female lovers, not in motivating his behavior. Mehran is the most glaring example of the muddy writing. But it's also inexplicable that Atafeh's nice Bach loving father Firooz (Soheil Parsa) and adoring mom Azar (Nasin Pakkho), who smiles beautifically and sings traditional songs at the drop of a hat, would have no inkling of either Mehran's creepy spying or the two girl's hot sex.

Eventually the boldness with which Keshavarz depicts revolt by the girls and some gay male friends -- who comically try to dub Van Sant's Milk into Farsi -- is more and more undercut by plot illogic and the lack of a fuller sense of what's going on in the country. One begins to wish a real Iranian film had been made, in Iran, under the radar, with less boldness but more of a sense of politics, religion, and personalities. An example of an off-the-grid and nitty-gritty Iranian film about contemporary misbehavior and repression, among others, is Nader T. Homayoun's 2009 Tehroun, which was in New Directors/New Films last year and had brief releases in France and the US. Keshavarz's lush lesbian scenes are not so much representative of Iranian realities as an escape into self-indulgence; and the consequences of revolt are only sketchily worked out. How nice that Mehran is on hand at the secret police HQ when one of the girls is pulled in, to have her record wiped clean. It's not so easy if you haven't got the money to buy your way to Dubai -- or an American passport.

Circumstance (شرایط) debuted at Sundance, where it won an audience award, and received various grants besides being supported by Sundance workshop. It was screened and reviewed at New Directors/New Films in New York in early April and at the San Francisco International Film Festival in early May. It is scheduled for US release August 19, 2011.

SFIFF Screenings
Sun, May 1
6:00 / Kabuki
Tue, May 3
6:15 / Kabuki

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