On the surface, Circumstance (2011) depicts the emotive, tumultuous journey of Atafeh and her orphaned best friend Shireen. They fall in love in Iran, where tensions mount between the underground youth culture, particularly their steps toward LGBTQ rights. and the post-revolution customs that become increasingly embraced by some characters, especially Atafeh’s incredibly creepy brother, Mehran.
The chemistry between the two protagonists, and the actresses who play them (Nikohl Boosheri and Sarah Kazemy) captivates the viewer, who is allowed a momentary escape into the sensitive and sensual world that even the protagonists themselves can only grasp briefly.
While the star-crossed relationship is central to the film, director Maryam Keshavarz moves beyond merely creating a film with a queer storyline. The actors, while all of Iranian heritage, are members of the diaspora raised in the West. Shot in Lebanon, the film provided a fake script to authorities in order to avoid any disruptions and to protect the cast and crew. Given the politics built into the very production of Circumstance, the audience can move beyond asking whether the film is depicting ‘real’ Iranian lesbians, and instead question the relationship between location and LGBTQ+ politics.
The scenes of dubbing, such as working on the movie Milk, includes one character being told to sound ‘more gay’ but ‘not that gay’. It’s a comment on the Western understanding of what it means to be and perform gay, because the gay identity involves a point of reference which is, in reality, a construct.
Later comes the lip-synching scene, where Shireen and Atafeh’s initial crush is hinted at as they perform a giggling rendition of Total Eclipse of the Heart. The scene is about being silenced in a few different ways. In this ephemeral moment, their current situation is silenced so that they can embody a louder queer identity, before being literally silenced by Mehran’s surveillance. Through this imitation, they unconsciously occupy a Western voice in order to articulate their desire for one another. Keshavarz seems to both problematise this and leave it open for discussion.
At times, however, I found the eroticisation of their fantasies to be slightly more catered to the Western, perhaps even male, gaze- more so than a ‘realistic’ depiction of a young lesbian couple would warrant. In the end though, these brief scenes of glamour and freedom, which become phantasmagorical expressions of love in Dubai, help to build the tension, and force the viewer to yearn for the two women’s happily-ever-after just as much as they do.
Their sexual desire and emotional bond are the only indication of their feelings for one another , and their lesbian identity. Labels are avoided and the terms of their relationship remain unaddressed. . This kind of coming-out discussion is far more common in Western movies about gay relationships.
The film’s political setting pushes the word ‘queer’ beyond a description of the girls’ identity, to encompass subversive cultures deemed ‘radical’ under Iran’s regime. Perhaps the best way to watch Circumstance is to avoid reading it either as a solely positive account of lesbian desire or an eroticised product stemming from Western, orientalising logic. The film’s script and cinematography lead the audience into a world of rebellion, disruption, and emotion. It is a thought-provoking commentary on identity, and a beautiful example of queer, transnational cinema.