"I'll be the manager and you'll be the dancer."
This is the first sentence one hears in Circumstance, directed by Maryam Keshavarz.
Those who've watched pre-revolutionary Iranian film-farsi* are familiar with the shabby plot: a brutal, sexist and corrupted cabaret manager exploits and abuses her female dancer, and the movie protagonist, an athletic man, usually from downtown Tehran, falls in love with the girl and fights with the manager to rescue her. Women who are helpless, hapless, and passive, and men who are either exploiters or rescuers, are common characters in many pre-revolutionary film-farsi(s). Part of the popularity of this film genre came from dancing and singing scenes and women's performances in risqué dresses and behaviors.
Objectification of women's bodies under the male gaze was the theme of many movies during the ancien régime. The male-dominated cinema industry was accustomed to perpetuating an active-passive dichotomic role based on its patriarchal principles. So it's particularly surprising, then, that almost three decades later, an American-Iranian director -- born and raised in the U.S. -- has reproduced that all-too-familiar discourse.
In Circumstance, the audience is witness to that very same gaze and objectification of women's bodies, but in contrast with film-farsi, this time the director is a woman who's been raised in the West and has a background in gender studies. This film, in its depiction of Iranian lesbians, perhaps with the intention of demonstrating the dark aspects of their lives and their difficult situation under a theocratic regime, portrays the relationship between manager and dancer as a symbol of freedom, or, perhaps more accurately said, an image of freedom.
The film might sound exotic for Western audiences; just imagine witnessing the hidden sexual life of two "oriental" women behind closed doors and hidden from the gaze of others in the Middle East -- it's reminiscent of an Arabian Nights theme. Such an exotic image is now portrayed on the magic curtain, and the result is a voyeuristic gaze at the bodies of two young women. The thirst for a porno scene arising from the portrayal of semi-naked women is not satisfied by the director, who instead permits the imagination of the audience to take over and completes an Eastern scene of Foucauldian ars erotica. This is not an uncommon theme in classic Eastern porno films, also prevalent in pre-revolutionary Iranian movies. The main difference, though, is that this time, two women (homosexuality) are replacing the customary man-woman heterosexual pornography. And as is so often the case with pornography, the scenes are designed in a way to satisfy the gaze of men, which, in this case, is represented by Mehran, the recovering drug addict turned religious government official (a basiji), who accompanies the gaze of the male audience.
In Circumstance, freedom is reduced to "sex," or, as it is said more vulgarly in the movie, "kardan," the equivalent of "ramming it" in English urban lexicon. The repetition of this word in various sequences of the film demonstrates the over-obsession of Iranian youths with sexual relationships, not in terms of foreplay or love, but in the mere act of "doing it." The dialogue between the girls and Iranian boys at parties is limited to sexual chats and conversations.
The Iranian youth's obsession with parties, sex and drinking is underscored when an Iranian-American young man, who arrives from the U.S., speaks about revolution and political freedom. However, his Iranian counterparts ridicule him and reply to his questions about the uprising with sexual slang. It's not dissimilar to the actions of the filmmaker herself, an Iranian-American who thinks that she should make a movie about Iranian lesbians in order to "help" them, as well as "enlighten" them about their lack of "freedom." Iranian youths do not seem as conscious as their American friend about other forms of freedom aside from the sexual. The American is capable of critical thinking, analyzing the situation better than his Iranian friends. He even tries to employ the technical facilities that he can afford in order to "educate" his fellow Iranians by making them dub a provocative and revolutionary movie like Milk. But he is not very successful in his attempts because his Iranian friends turn the various "educational " sessions into a sex scene by imitating a typical porn film conversation and mimicking their sexual moaning. One comes away from this film with the impression that these young Iranians need an American mind to raise their political consciousness, as they don't care about anything aside from their underground sexual lives, while their political resistance is limited to cheering Hollywood and cursing "the Mullahs" while drunk.
One might argue that a government like the Islamic Republic prefers such revolutionaries to those who took to the streets of Tehran in the summer of 2009, who were subsequently imprisoned, tortured and killed, not for wanting sexual freedom but for wanting a more equal, democratic country that does not need to mimic Western lifestyles to show its modernity, a kind of freedom that would allow characters like Shirin and Atefeh the chance to live with love and dignity sublime without being forced to hide behind walls. Unfortunately, films like Circumstance not only fail to raise sympathy for the severely repressed lives of homosexuals in Iran but reduce their fight for equal rights to a pornographic sentiment.
Besides these conceptual misrepresentations, the film is also full of technical and aesthetical deficiencies. For an Iranian like me, someone who was raised in the aftermath of the 1979 revolution and lived in Iran until her late 20s, the scenes, dialogues and relationships in the film look very superficial, stereotypical and filled with clichés. Only an Iranian who does not need English subtitles while watching the film might pick up the actors' English accents when they are speaking Persian. On some occasions, they even mispronounce the Persian words. Some scenes in the film look more like rough cuts without rehearsal or editing. It seems the director did not bother having the actors redo their dialogue in order to correct their mispronunciation of the words. For example, in one scene, a news anchor is heard on the radio repeatedly misreading the sentences, even mispronouncing the words on various occasions with an unsuccessful attempt to correct them.
Finally, I believe that Circumstance turned a very sensitive and potentially worthy theme of portraying the problems that sexual minorities are facing in Iran into a very trivial portrayal of Iranian youths' sexual desires.
*Film-farsi is (was) a genre of Iranian pre-revolutionary cinema based on very simple storylines and filled with the scenes of soap-opera-like romantic love, singing and dancing. It usually centers on an antagonist and a male protagonist, who at the end of the film marries his lover or dies in order to save her from the antagonist.