Circumstance (DVD review)

By Niall McArdle

“Morality Police” is a term that gets bandied about by liberals, usually without much thought, whenever there is a moment of censorship in the culture. Mary Whitehouse getting upset about sex and violence on TV? Morality Police. Phone-lines jammed after Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction”? Morality Police. We tut-tut the prudes and wonder why they’re getting shirty about some good clean rumpy-pumpy, and we congratulate ourselves for being so open-minded. We don’t really care about the Morality Police because ultimately their fanaticism is hilarious, and more importantly, they don’t really have much power. We can always change the channel or find the sex and violence and foul language on the Internet.

In Iran, however, the term “Morality Police” carries real weight, real power and real consequence, and when the words are yelled out in Circumstance, the response is pure panic. Writer-director Maryam Keshavarz‘s feature debut is a tender and tragic coming-of-age movie that explores a side of Iran little seen in the West.


Iran after the 1979 anti-Shah Revolution – which the film is at pains to point out was at first supported by many liberal, secular intellectuals – is a repressive theocratic state where women cannot even go for a swim at the beach. In spite or because of the fundamentalist crackdown, Iranian teenagers long for all the things teenagers all over the world want: sex, drugs and alcohol.


Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri) and Shireen (Sarah Kazemy) are schoolfriends. Atafeh, the more rebellious of the two, is from a rich, secular family; Shireen’s parents, we learn, were executed by the State for counter-revolutionary writing.

Atafeh and Shireen go to underground parties where they throw off their burkas to reveal party dresses. They drink and get high and do all the other things kids should. In one hilarious scene, they and their friends dub Milk into Farsi. All of this, of course, is illegal, and the lives these bright girls have to live are unbearably sad. A taxi-driver calls Shireen a whore and threatens to drive her to the police station and report her, for what, we don’t know. Instead he forces her to give him a footjob, and the sense of violation is incredible. It’s the most uncomfortable scene in the film.


Atafeh loves her parents but hates that their generation made Iran such a repressive place. Her parents, too, are filled with disquiet: we find out that her dad had been at Berkeley in the 1970s and returned in 1979 to depose the Shah. How he feels about the place it has become is obvious from the sad and bewildered expression he wears.


He is equally bewildered by his son, Mehran (Rezo Sixo Safai), a recovering drug addict who becomes a fundamentalist Muslim. Mehran insists that the family pull the car over so he can pray. They have to wait for him to finish praying before they can start dinner. Mehran also falls under the sway of the Morality Police. He sells out his former friends to them and he even spies on his own family. Every dictatorship needs young zealots like Mehran (there’s a lot of Rolf from The Sound of Music in him).

If Circumstance was only about the dangers of fundamentalism, it would still be an interesting film. What makes it unmissable, though, is the love triangle it sets up. Mehran falls in love with Shireen, but so does Atafeh. The two girls dream of escape, and there are several lyrically shot dream-sequences in which they are happy together.

Français : Sarah Kazemy au festival de Deauville
Sarah Kazemy au festival de Deauville

A wedding scene, though ostensibly a joyful occasion, is filled with tension and sadness as the two girls can only look at each other and wonder how and why.

The sexual and romantic bond between the two leads is well played, and their love-scenes are sensuous rather than exploitative. All the performances are spot-on, and it is a shock to learn that Sarah Kazemy had never acted before. Most of the cast are Iranian exiles. The film was shot in Lebanon (filming in Iran, of course, was out of the question). The color palette is rich. The cinematography is excellent. It features an intimate score and a nostalgic soundtrack full of traditional (pre-Ayatollah) Iranian pop-songs.

Verdict: “Fuck the Mullahs!”

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