Four years after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared there are no gays in Iran during a speech at Columbia University, an Iranian-American filmmaker courageously portrays an unusual story of two Iranian lesbians who struggle under religious and cultural repression to explore their sexuality.
Iranians are, in general, culturally hesitant to publicly talk about their private lives and sexuality, so the sex scenes between two schoolgirls Atefeh (Nikohl Boosheri) and Shireen (Sarah Kazemi) in Circumstance, take the viewer to the most extreme parts of Iranian underground lifestyle.
While Maryam Keshavarz’s portrayal is bold, and addresses a major taboo in Iran, many lesbians who actively live and love in the shadows there say the movie is not necessarily a true portrayal.
The young Iranian-American director, who grew up in the United States, filmed the movie in Lebanon, away from the eyes of Iranian authorities. But even in Lebanon it was a daring project to tackle as the film’s subject was unbeknownst to Lebanese authorities. Still, it seems that security concerns may have limited her in creating an Iran that feels real—especially for those who know the country and the culture. Choices of locations, set designs, clothing, dialogues, and even makeup often appeared unrealistic and artificial. The actresses, Atefeh and Shireen, clearly grew up in the West, with strong accents, and although they try to talk like Tehrani girls, they remain hard to believe.
"The scene where the woman she loves [Atefeh] marries her brother, and she suffers for this is very real for me, as I experienced it in my own life,” Maryam, a lesbian told me from Iran under condition of anonymity. “But, overall, an Iranian lesbian would not enjoy watching this film, or find herself in it, though other viewers might find it interesting. As a lesbian who is quite familiar with the lesbian lifestyle, I can say that instead of showing the hidden sides of the lesbian romance, this film is closer to a porn film, as it lacks depth and mostly shows the physical aspects of the relationship. Even the love-making scenes between the two girls seem to be more for making the film sexy than to discuss a social taboo." she said.
Still, Circumstance is a very smart movie that is able to create a conversation about homosexuality and Iran’s underground lifestyle—something that Iranian activists welcome. Some say the Islamic Republic’s strict policies on gender segregation—from separate schools to men and women sections on the bus has created a lot of sexual confusion in girls. What can a girl do when she spends all her time with girls, and is not allowed to interact with boys without raising eyebrows?
"I saw for myself, in high school, that girls got close to each other for friendship, but at some point, some of these relationships could go beyond friendship,” Negar Mortazavi, an Iranian journalist told the Daily Beast adding that, “You could even see among students from the more traditional families that some of them had feelings for each other, but they didn’t know exactly what these feelings were.”
Other Iranians feminists aren’t so nuanced about the topic, or the movie.
“The relationships appear exaggerated and this confused storytelling makes the film unbelievable to the point where it seems that squeezing sex and the government’s suppressive violence and similar subjects is intended to make the film more exciting, as opposed to trying to approach a serious subject in Iran," said Mahboubeh Abbasgholizadeh, an Iranian feminist and rights activist told the Daily Beast.
“A number of Iranian feminists and women activists who saw this film were angry about it. They said that they really need films to be made about the marginalized lifestyles of lesbian women, but these films should show the reality of these relationships," Abbasgholizadeh said. “I know that finding two young girls inside Iran who are either lesbians or who would not mind playing the roles of lesbians may have been impossible, but this limitation has seriously damaged the film, at least for those who have traveled to Iran or who know Farsi well.”
But in a society where homosexuality is punishable by death, the movie is thought-provoking.
A young woman from Tehran told the Daily Beast that she is impatiently waiting to find an underground copy of Circumstance in Tehran. "Right now, there are a lot more people who are confused about their sexuality, asking themselves what their orientation is and the film will encourage them to follow their curiosity” she said. “In some big cities and in more modern households, in order to make sure of their sexuality, a lot of these girls have tried having relations with same-sex partners at least once in their lives," she added.
Despite the criticism, in making this film, Keshavarz has faced personal and family challenges, too. She chose a politically dangerous topic, which might prevent her from returning to Iran for as long as the Islamic government is in power. For an Iranian-American who might find traveling to her parents’ homeland extremely appealing, this is a type of emotional suicide. But it seems that she has preferred discussing a deep Iranian social taboo over the chance to return to Iran. When her mother flew from Los Angeles to watch the film at the Sundance Film Festival, she was not even comfortable with the subject matter of her daughter’s film.
Hamid Dabashi, a Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York, told the Daily Beast that any attention, cinematic or otherwise, to taboo subjects is both inevitable and ought to be judged on their artistic virtues and achievements rather than their social or political messages.
“It is true that gay and lesbian issues as we understand them in North America or Western Europe are taboo subject in Iran,” Dabashi stated. “But that does not mean that homoerotic themes in the larger and more cross cultural senses have never existed in our literary or visual and performing arts. In Persian poetry, in our classical ghazal in particular, and because in Persian we do not have gender-specific pronouns, the figure of "the beloved" is as much hetero-erotic as it is homoerotic."
Of course, the place where the movie has made the most impact, no matter its execution, is that it has opened a dialogue about sexuality in Iran.
"I think that a film that explores a different sexuality could make a significant impact, and of course affect how people think about sexuality, and what it means for Iranians to explore this type of sexuality," said Pardis Mahdavi, author of Passionate Uprisings: Iran’s Sexual Revolution.
Aside from the conversation that the movie has sparked, however, many critics have argued that one of the biggest problems is that it doesn’t remain focused. Keshavarz is cognizant of social issues in Iran—a disappointed young generation, severe social suppression, interference of the regime in citizens’ private lives, and young men and women who courageously break social and political taboos. Even so, instead of raising multiple points in the movie, if the topic of the relationship between two lesbian girls had remained the focal point of the film, its confusion could have been reduced.
Not everyone agrees.
“If John Smith of Montana made this film, it would never get noticed,” said Mortazavi.