Thursday, September 22, 2011


MPAA (R) Roger Ebert (2 1/2 Stars) Fr Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing -
Roger Ebert's Review -

Circumstance (screenplay written and directed by Iranian-American director Maryam Keshavarz [1] [2]) is a Farsi (Persian) language film with English subtitles filmed in Beirut, Lebanon produced by Marakesh Films and partly funded by Robert Redford's Sundance Institute about two 16 year-old girls Atefah (played by Nikohl Boosheri) and Shireen (played by Sarah Kazemy) living in contemporary Iran flirting with entering into a lesbian relationship.

A Movie in line with a long tradition of Dissident Literature / Film Making

This is movie calls to mind a whole series of other books and films from various countries around the world, seeking to show that the same issues being discussed and fought over in the West _also_ exist in their home countries and are, or more to the point, would be discussed there if not for (as this movie is named) "circumstance."  To give some examples:

Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988) directed by Philip Kaufmann and starring Daniel Day Lewis, Lena Olin and Juliette Binoche based on the novel by Czech dissident writer Milan Kundera, which recalled both the intellectual and yes sexual-revolutionary ferment of Prague's Spring of 1968 and the reality that Eastern Europe's "Berkeley in the Sixties" wasn't crushed simply by policemen's billy-clubs but rather by Soviet tanks.  The crushing of the Prague Spring brought to the United States one of the most famous film directors of the Czech New Wave of the time, Milos Forman, who since became enormously successful in Hollywood making film after film with the theme of anti-authoritarianism.  (Note here that this film Unbearable Lightness of Being received an "O" or morally offensive rating by the CNS/USCCB for its sexuality, that yes, would make even most adults blush).

Monsoon Wedding (2001), a Bollywood production directed by famed Indian director Mira Nair) whose release coincided with both 9/11 and India's entry onto the world's economic scene as a true rising power.  The contrast between the bearded, burka-demanding Taliban of Afghanistan and the (admittedly largely upper-class) Indian society presented in Monsoon Wedding could not be more striking.  Here was a film directed by a successful woman director from India reminding the world that not every country in South Asia is the same, noting in particular that in India, proud of both its independence and _how_ it achieved its independence, _truly everything_ could be openly discussed from [1] (traditionally) arranged marriage to [2] religion/caste (the enormously complex Hindu wedding around which this story was built was contrasted quite favorably/sympathetically with the very _simple Christian_ wedding between two of one of the family's servants), to [3] its historically strained relations with Pakistan (the family of the bride had been Hindu refugees from Pakistan's part of Punjab) to [4] even emerging questions about homosexuality (the bride's younger teenage brother was presented as someone who was beginning to explore the possibility that he may be gay and the family was presented as one that would be supportive of him if he turned out that way).  In contrast to Unbearable Lightness of Being, Monsoon Wedding is a nice PG movie, but the message was actually very similar -- India too, like Czechoslovakia (and its East European neighbors during the Cold War) would really like to be considered a modern, open country.,

Scheherazade Tell Me a Story aka Women of Cairo (2009) directed by Egyptian director Yousry Nasrallah, which predated the current Arab Spring by two years.  Yet, anybody seeing this movie would leave understanding that Egypt was ripe for exactly the kind of the youth-led protest movement that brought down the regime of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak in February, 2011.  The central characters in the movie were a "yuppie couple" in which the husband, Karim, was a junior editor at an Egyptian newspaper and the wife, Hemma, was a television talk show personality.  To "stay out of trouble" and thereby help her husband's career, Hemma decides to "turn away from stories about corruption" to pursue something safer "talking about lives and problems of women in contemporary Egypt."  What could possibly go wrong?  Well, every interview that she set out to do just exposed the embedded misogyny and injustices against women in Egyptian society to the point that Karim actually hits her near the end of the story trying to dissuade her from pursuing this topic any further.  Women, of course, were among the most vocal in the 2011 protests on Tahir Square in Egypt which brought down the Mubarak Regime.

Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003) a book by Iranian writer/literature professor Azar Nafisi about her experience attempting to teach western literature in contemporary Iran under the Islamic Regime.

The Green Wave (2010 directed and co-written by Ali Samadi Ahadi as well as Oliver Stoltz), a English language documentary about the youth dominated 2009-10 green protests in Iran following the presidential election there. 

Even Viva Riva! (2010) a slick crime thriller written and directed by Congolese director Djo Munga for which he won best director at the 2011 African Academy Awards is a reminder that pretty much everywhere the same topics and even styles are being discussed by people and especially young people today.  One of the characters in this movie was presented as having a lesbian sexual orientation.

All this is to help us remember that Circumstance is a smart, intelligent, youth oriented film of a dissident vein about contemporary Iran that many would recognize as coming out of a long tradition of similar works produced by modern (and often in their time dissident) artists the world over.

A challenge not only to the regime in Iran but to Authoritarianism in all its forms

Challenging for someone like me, a Catholic priest, would be that while the Catholic Church generally supports human rights, when it comes to the questions regarding sexual freedom  -- homosexuality, contraception, at the far end abortion (Abortion is, in the final analysis, the killing of someone utterly innocent because of previous engagement in sex, so it's difficult to imagine how the Catholic Church could ever change its position there) -- the Catholic Church has generally placed itself as an opponent of such (sexual) "freedoms." This would make the Catholic Church here more of an ally of Iran's Islamic regime than it perhaps would like to admit.

So this is not necessarily a bad movie for a Catholic or even a Catholic functionary, like me (a priest) or even bishop to watch, not necessarily to our change minds but to be aware of the sensitivities involved.

After all, Iran, like a lot of Middle Eastern countries is a land where the sexes live largely segregated lives.  In the absence of much contact members of the opposite sex (except perhaps in _illicit clubs_ like those presented in the movie as well), it should not be surprising that this would become fertile ground for the budding of potentially homosexual relationships.

Such level of same-sex segregation simply does not exist (or no longer exists) in the West.  However, one could imagine other circumstances (like suitors of the opposite sex not exactly pounding down the doors asking to go out) where one could understand why a young person could want to flirt with the idea of being gay.  Note while there doesn't seem to be too many men who flirt with this concept (generally one seems to realize fairly quickly if one is gay or not gay), it _does_ seem that lingering over lesbian relationships is an anxiety that one's partner may not turn out to be a lesbian at all but simply one who "hasn't found the right guy yet."  This concern/scenario plays out in the recent film Our Idiot Brother as well as, in part, here in Circumstance.

In any case, resolving such sexual issues as one approaches adulthood is difficult enough.  To be doing so in a place like the Islamic Republic of Iran where "morality police" are not merely concepts to put in quotation marks but real, badge carrying, baton wielding officers patrolling the streets at night and knocking down doors of "illicit clubs" with battering rams (like used to be done in the United States during the Prohibition Era) must be simply awful.

Yes the "morality police" of Iran populate the far extreme of authoritarianism with regards to personal freedom, but any authoritarian religious/political system leaning toward an arguably totalitarian vision would be well served by doing something of an examination of conscience following viewing a film like this.

Because while Iran has its "morality police," invasions of privacy and tendencies toward authoritarianism have existed all over the world:

(1) Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann's husband has run a clinic which attempts to "cure" homosexuals of their tendency.  This brings to mind _similar_ attempts (also _no doubt sincere_) by authorities in past Communist lands  to use psychiatric institutes to attempt to "cure" people of their "aversion to" (or "difficulty with coping with life in") the "socialist paradises" that these regimes were constructing in the former Soviet Bloc;

(2) After describing how a court case in Israel about whether or not "the mixing of steam" rising from adjacent bins of blintzes (make of eggs and dairy products) and kosher sausages at a Tel Aviv Hilton's brunch spread violated Jewish dietary laws (to not mix dairy and meat products) went up all the way to the Israeli Supreme court (where the High Court of the Land had to solemnly declare steam to be water and hence not either a dairy or meat product), the exasperated pulitzer prize winning journalist, Richard Ben Cramer asked in his book How Israel Lost (2004), how the absurdity underlying this case differed in any significant way from similar absurdities occurring in the Islamic Republic of Iran;

(3) Perhaps the most heartfelt and utterly sincere defense of "young woman's honor" ever portrayed in film probably came for above mentioned Milos Forman's movie Loves of a Blonde (1965) where tear-driven "comrade house mother" tried to tell her young, late-teens to early 20-year-old charges (to the rolling of their eyes) that "a woman's honor is all a young woman has."  However, the young women in her charge weren't all that interested in "women's honor" because due to "poor socialist planning" they hadn't been able see a boy their age for months (The boys their age, were all drafted into the army and serving on the Czech/West German border while these girls were living in a dorm and working at a factory in central Moravia hundreds of miles away).   The poor house mother was largely right (that a woman's dignity is important, indeed a treasure) but the system in which those people were living in (dialogue from the move: "We need those young men at the border in case of war." "But what if the war doesn't come?" "What do you mean the war won't come? It's a 'historical inevitability'...") kept young people from meeting (and establishing stable, long-term relationships, that is, getting married, even if at times "modern couples" may not want to call it that...) _naturally_;

(4) Spanish Dictator Franco kept peace with the Catholic Church during his reign  by always standing (here cynically) for "traditional moral values."  It did not matter that his police tortured people to keep any opposition down as long as divorce remained illegal.  This was not the "brightest hour" for the Catholic Church, even though many very good Catholic movements did come out of Spain at the time, including Cursillo and Marriage Encounter.  Indeed, I would not be surprised if today's young and middle aged Iranians could point to similar, authentically good religious movements that have come out of Iran since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, even if what Iran is mostly known for today (like Franco's Spain in his time) is for its "jackbooted thugs;"

(5) This leads to a final arguably _counter-point_ which actually completes the whole:  Even in Shiite Islam (to which most of Iran's population adheres to), the political model of Iran's "Islamic Republic" is _not_ universally accepted.  The Grand Ayatollah Sistani (arguably the Shiite Muslims' "pope") residing now in Karbala, Iraq (arguably the Shiite Muslims' "vatican") has largely _rejected_ the Iranian "Islamic model" of governance in favor of a far more democratic approach and more respectful of other faiths (as long as the Shiite majority is respected as well).   The problem to be found with Iran's current "Islamic" political system is not that it is Islamic or Shiite, but rather it interprets both Islam and its role in society in a very authoritarian tending toward totalitarian way.  The West has had similar problems of negotiating the roles of Church and States (or in the case of the Communists, Ideology and State) as well.

So the story of these two teenage girls living in Iran becomes a parable for the whole world really to consider.  How to we help these girls to be happy and to realize their destiny in this life/world?

Finally to the movie itself ...

The movie portrays these two young girls, Atefeh and Shireen as growing-up in a young Iranian culture that we in the west have gotten to know through news reports and testimonies of people like Azar Nafisi or Reza Aslan which is far more complex and frankly free (if one knows how to walk the system) than one would have expected.  True outside, women have to wear their head scarfs and chadors, but inside one's home it's generally a different world, where the chadors come off and people dress in more (western) clothes.  Similarly inside a private club in Tehran the world could be very different as well, with both dancing and drinking.  The problem is that maintaining this public vs private schizophrenia isn't easy.

The movie makes a lot of use of the surveillance cams, reminding us that the same technologies that can help to make us freer than before can be subverted and used by various authorities to trap, imprison people.  This is something that everyone in the West knows as well.  The same technologies that have allowed me to help the girlfriend of a Czech nephew of mine in Prague with her Italian homework over Facebook (something that I never, ever thought would be possible when I was growing up in Chicago in the 1970s-80s) can be used by others to spy on me (and others) if they wanted.  Big brother has been "democratized" into a mass of ant-like little brothers.  This is bad enough in the United States and just becomes worse when a fair number of those ants coalesce together to form a still fairly robust, prying and (confident of itself) righteous middle brother.

 In the movie the week link is Atefah's brother Mehran (played by Reza Sixo Safai) who in dealing with his own issues/failings notably drug addiction "finds Allah" in much the same way that alcoholics in the U.S. often find God as they enter into a 12-step program. But "finding Allah" in a place like Iran isn't necessarily a good thing.  Sincerely attending a mosque in Tehran, praying for a job, he gets recruited by an Iranian domestic intelligence officer (a bigger player in the "morality police") and soon poor Mehran finds all kinds of sin in his own family.  And so the surveillance that used to occur only on the streets of Tehran, suddenly comes home.

It's just such a tragic story and certainly Mehran is utterly sincere.  And given that this all takes place in the Islamic Republic of Iran, the damage he causes is far greater than similarly sincere people the world over who've similarly "found Jesus," "the Church" or any kind of "absolute (historical) Truth" and then misapply it by pointing outward toward others rather than inward toward oneself.  Please don't get me wrong: JESUS DOES SAVE (I myself can testify to this, both in my life and in others), and the Catholic Church when it remains _the middle way_ is a blessing to the world (the chaos that would be present in the world without the historical presence of the Church would be unbearable.  And I've known good sincere Muslims who say the same thing about Islam, which means _peace_ after all).  But in the word of Dr. Zhivago in Boris Pasternak's famous novel, the surgeries performed by "social surgeons" have to be done very carefully, or else the patient may die.

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