Circumstance (2011) Review

With my busy worklife and crazy whirlpool of a love life (kidding about the lovelife part, I’m forever alone), I’ve managed to catch two films in the past week; namely Circumstance and the recent Ghost Rider.

The first movie, Circumstance, blew me away with its coming-of-age storyline set in modern day Iran.


Set in Iran, Circumstance gives us a sneak peek into Iran’s youth culture of today. With the advancement of technology and the wide-spreading of mass media, information is readily available in this modern day and age. With that in mind, we see Iran’s younger generation to be armed with the knowledge and information of the world, but yet unable to freely speak of it or use it. This movie revolves around Atefeh, who grew up in a wealthy family with liberal parents; as well as Shireen, who lives with her uncle, both under the oppression of the government, their religion, and their family.

The story begins with introducing the relationship between these two girls – a simple friendship which eventually leads to something more. The chemistry between the two leads were instantaneous; as the viewer, we could feel the sweet innocent attraction to each other, but also the strong sexual tension that is constantly suppressed. Their personalities were truly of the opposite; Atefeh is  adventurous and dreams of fame, while Shireen is shy and reserved. The spirited and earnest performances of the two leads were beautifully executed, making their circumstances devastatingly real.

The one thing that strikes me is the juxtaposition of dreams and reality in the film. In each fantasy world that the girls escape to, the composition and style is done beautifully like a glamour ad, to show the stark contrast between dreams and reality. This fantasy world is the only place where the girls can escape to, and this is executed beautifully by the director.

The oppression of the government was particularly well presented in the film. I loved how the director inserts video camera footagein various parts the film, to show how Iranians are constantly being watched – whether it is by the government, religious leaders, or even their own family. Atefeh’s brother Mehran, an ex-druggie who returns to the family, replaces his obsession with drugs and music with another destructive obsession – control and voyeurism. A once liberal man, he becomes obsessed with watching his family through his computer, as influenced by a religious leader he met in a mosque. This idea of voyeurism is constantly present throughout the film, and the fact that these Iranians are aware of the fact that they are being watched but are helpless to do anything about it increases the tension further, and makes the forbidden fruit all the more dangerous and deadly.

After watching the film, it made me really ponder – are we all bounded by the circumstances we are in, or do we actually have a choice to break free? All the characters in the story are bounded by their own circumstances. Shireen lost her parents, and is made to stay with an angry uncle who can’t wait to marry her off and be rid of her; Atefeh is bounded by her identity as an Iranian, therefore she feels that her dreams of becoming a singer and the ability to love another girl is an unattainable longing; Mehran is bounded by his past, thus he feels he needs to turn to religion. All the characters in the story are overall bounded by the fact that they are Iranians living Iran, which explains Atefeh and Shireen’s constant desire to go abroad and escape from their country.

The ending actually answers my question – that even though we are all indeed bounded by the circumstances we are in, but we do have a choice to break free. Or rather, it seems to be based on much less of decision making but more of actually having the courage to act on our decision to be ourselves. The ending shows Atefeh leaving the country by paying off the immigration officer, while Shireen marries her brother and stays in Iran with her family. Many would be feeling empty about the sad ending, but I feel that it shows us the reality of their situation, and sums up what the director is expresisng about how each of us have our own circumstances. Shireen stays because she does not have the courage to act on her dreams and what she wishes for, and the reason why she lacks courage is excactly because of  the circumstances that she is in – that she is a married woman and that she is without any family in Iran. Atefeh, on the other hand, has the priviledge of being born with a silver spoon and growing up in a liberal family, therefore she is able to escape to a place where she can truly be herself.

The reality is that the choices we make to break free are based on each and everyone of the circumstances we are in, and how we face and perceive oppression, anger or any other situation in life is connected to the situation we are in. What we dream of is that we are the ones that control our destiny, that we are the ones who control the decisions we make in life. But once you factor in our circumstances, we realise that half of the choices we make are determined by the society. If Atefeh, with all her dreams and ideas, were placed in Shireen’s circumstances, what will she do? With no kin and no money, she could either marry Mehran and have a family or take the risk and try to survive the world with nothing. So here I wonder, what would be her decision?

Circumstance is truly a film that allows us to chew on the hard facts of life and society, and exposes a side of Iran in a way we’ve never seen before. It makes me think how lucky I am to be living in a liberal society where women are trusted and appreciated, and not oppressed or despised. A particularly poignant scene in the show left a deep impression on me – where Shireen joins Atefeh and her family on a trip to the seaside, and we see them lying on the grass resting. Behind them is another family having a day out at the beach, where we we see three men in their swimwear coming back from a swim in the sea, and they are being served by an Iranian woman covered in black cloth showing only her eyes. Then, as Atefeh’s father prepares to go for a swim himself, he makes a comment that was strongly etched in my mind :” I wish that one day you’ll be able to join us.” It was then that I realized that these women were not allowed to touch the sea or show any skin in public, and that they might not have ever had the experience of having a good dip in the ocean. This reiterates the oppression and tension that the women in Iran put up with everyday. Even such a liberal family is unable to break free from the rules of the society to be themselves, what more can an average Iranian do?

This film is definitely an eye-opener, and is less of a sappy love story between two girls but more of an inside look at Iran in all its cultural complexity. Adding into the picture of oppressed women and a controlling government, is the theme of homosexuality explored in a place where the president himself denies the existence of love between the same sex.