Women in Love
Homosexuals, gypsies and Slavs were also targeted, so Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust statement is relevant, too, in its blinkered denial of state elimination of minorities. More to the point is his booed Columbia University assertion, “In Iran we don’t have homosexuals, this phenomenon. I don’t know who told you.” Same-sex love and gender politics are but one aspect among related nexuses that inform complex, slightly too complex, Circumstance.
Developed at Sundance Screenwriters Lab, and the Audience Award-winner at this year’s festival there, it is a first narrative feature from Iranian-American writer, director and co-producer Maryam Keshavarz and, while unsettling and striking, betrays the insufficiently edited enthusiasm of the first-timer. The lush photography of Brian Rigney Hubbard, for example, effectively frames the overhead promo shot of the two protagonists lying opposite ways, i.e., one upside-down to the eye, but then caresses it too often. More of a difficulty lies in the excessive return to jumbled underground clubs where some action may or may not be initiated but in which characters and hangers-on are undifferentiated.
Too much in too many scenes is worked in, even though a thematic relationship may be gleaned among the parts in repressive, fearful, corrupt, Morality Policed Tehrān -- the uneasy status of the wealthy, the educated, and those with foreign contacts; sex, drugs, rock & roll among youth restless for freedom; the generational gap not at all excluding that between parents and children; the suppression of minority views and lifestyles and, especially, of women in a macho religious fanatic society.
Herself having come to the United States at an early ago and being educated here but spending summer vacations with her large family still in Shiraz, Keshavarz shaped the film “largely on my personal experience” in exploring liberal family love and its susceptibility to outside authoritarianism (which, along with other pressures, subverts parental authority and perverts filial and sibling relationships).
In abaya and black hijab Atafeh Hakimi and Shireen Arshadi (Nikohl Boosheri and Sarah Kazemy) seem mischievous inseparable schoolgirls, the former from a wealthy, cultured family, the latter “of questionable background” of deceased politically suspect parents and now raised by an uncle (Fariborz Daftari). Physically riper than their film-age of sixteen, however, they have no trouble taking taxis -- one insistent cabbie (Hady Tabbal) is a foot fetishist -- to clandestine clubs where they peel down to modern outfits and mingle with gays, sex-seeking straights, dancers, druggies, and hard drinkers who belie Omar’s jug of wine and thou.
“Atie’s” older brother Mehran (Reza Sixo Safai) shows up after a stay in drug rehab, to the delight -- accompanied by unease -- of parents Firouz and Azar (Soheil Parsa and Nasrin Pakkho). Hollow-eyed, haunted by nightmares, and femininely handsome, he leaves behind his training in classical piano, turns to religion -- and to a jealous, ambivalent role -- and, through the mosque, to a connection with national security apparatus.
The families tread eggshells in a religious police state of terror and informers, and Shireen’s uncle tries to rein her in by bringing an approved suitor to the house. Still, at first innocently and always hesitantly, the two bosom friends move into a physical relationship, nicely restrained on-screen, now a touch now an embrace but never sensationalized explicit. And with bravado obscene words they join gay Joey and Hossein (Keon Mohajeri and Sina Amedson) in a studio dubbing Milk into Farsi.
That the girls are able to carry on where even a simple cab ride elicits sexist remarks, seems inconsistent, even if they are soon arrested. Shireen’s uncle “will kill me,” but instead she will cave in to a surprising arranged fate. The adolescents’ fantasy of love and freedom in an escape across the Gulf to Dubai is stillborn, if only halfway, and parents, too, will lose as much as gain.
Repression, says the filmmaker, is “a zero sum game” in which villains as well as the innocent are trapped in claustrophobia that fears to look outwards. Drawing on first-person observation and previous documentary work in this Lincoln Center-MoMA New Directors/New Films closing night and Outfest selection, she has fashioned an insider’s look at the current state of affairs in Iran. In future films, she would be advised to cut and tighten, to avoid diffusiveness and thus sharpen overall effect.
(Released by Roadside Attractions and rated "R" for sexual content, language and some drug use.)