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‘Circumstance,’ Thoughts on the Film and Q&A

I recently saw the new film "Circumstance" and listened to a Q&A Landmark held afterwards with its writer/director, one of its actors, and its music composer. This won't be a review for the film -- if you're interested in one, A.O. Scott has a very good review that I'd recommend [link]. However, I will note that I do disagree with some of his assessments of the film -- where he saw extravagance, I actually saw restraint -- but I suppose in a movie dealing with themes of oppression, this could be a generational thing.

Broadly, the film is about the director's (Maryam Keshavarz) experience growing up in Tehran -- and the effect an oppressive regime has on people who are seemingly quasi-free (but with a watchful eye over them.) It was fascinating watching it because it was almost like the west -- from the homes to cars to how people (sometimes) got to dress -- but it wasn't, not when things like the morality police exist.

As someone who has not seen a lot of foreign film, I was immediately struck by by what I would broadly classify as restraint. Nearly anytime I see a foreign film, the acting always hits me -- smaller, more precise, and more restrained. On a very similar note, there's also far less dialogue in the film than in a typical American film. This was actually something the moderator pointed out afterwards too as a big distinction between American and foreign cinema. I had recently watched "The Departed" and afterwards researched Vera Farmiga, who plays the role of the psychiatrist in that film. There's a New York Times article on her that describes her feeling that her role was "underwritten" and got Scorsese to reshoot and add scenes [link]. I don't know the backstory of "The Departed" so that might totally have been the right call (and who could argue with the results?) That being said, I remember watching "Circumstance" and thinking about how much less dialogue the actors got to work with and the great job they were able to do. I personally prefer more dialogue -- like many folks, Sorkin is one of my favorite screenwriters -- but that certainly was a very distinctly American / foreign distinction that played out quite beautifully in this film.

There's a character in the film, Mehran, who essentially represents the regime or oppression (grossly oversimplifying it.) The actor who was at the Q&A, Reza Sixo Safai, mentioned that both he and Maryam did not want his character to be wholly unsympathetic / that they wanted to find the humanity in his character as he, too, is a victim of the circumstances they're all in. Reza (who is Iranian) also said that when he was deciding whether or not to play the role, he knew that if he decided to do it, he would not be able to return to Iran (where he still has family.) In acting school, a term I kind of hate is "the truth" -- finding the truth of the character or of the scene. If you listen to actors talk, you'll often hear a close variant on this theme. One of my acting coaches was a long time student of Stella Adler, a well known acting teacher [link], and she apparently used to say, in broad response to this idea of "the truth", "It's all fake!" Because it is. There are a lot of things I don't like about acting -- one of them being how often actors hold themselves up as portraying "the truth" or at least the truth of the moment or the situation or what not. But when Reza said that, it struck me as seeing someone who would sacrifice so much for his art and for the story -- for wanting to play this role, with all the nuance, empathy, and humanity that he wanted to bring -- knowing that all that didn't matter and that his mere act would result in severe consequences regardless (banishment.) 

Apparently at a Q&A in Chicago (where they said the Iranian community is much more conservative than it is in Los Angeles) -- one of the questions they got, from a man in his mid-50s, was "I've lived in Tehran for over 30 years and I've never seen an underground party." The director's response was simply, "That's because this story is not about you." I think that's what I really enjoyed about this film. It exposed me to a world that was not my own. It made me think and project myself into the shoes of each of the characters. What would I do in that circumstance? Who would I be and how would I behave? Thoughtful and reflective, I'd recommend seeing "Circumstance".