Two must-see highlights of QFest

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Two of the highlights of QFest are “Circumstance” (7 p. m. July 15, Ritz East), a lesbian drama, and Absent (7:15 p.m. July 12 and 5 p.m. July 15, Ritz East), a psychological thriller.

“Circumstance” is bisexual filmmaker Maryam Keshavarz’s extraordinary film that sensitively depicts the struggles of two young lesbians in contemporary Iran. Winner of the Sundance Audience Award, this visually and emotionally dazzling film is a knockout. Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri) and Shireen (Sarah Kazemy) are forced by family and society to keep their love secret. Atafeh’s world is one of privilege, not freedom.

In an excerpt from an interview conducted with Keshavarz, the filmmaker addressed how being gay in the Middle East (except Turkey and Israel) is illegal, and how her film navigates queer identity. “More liberal, more educated people can speak about [homosexuality], but it’s dangerous, so it’s like a very controlled conversation with very select people.”

She continues, “The term gay is what people who are gay use in Iran. Does this film represent gay people in Iran? It’s a difficult question because you can’t be openly gay in Iran. So a gay identity takes on many different forms and expressions. Someone who’s married but has a lover, are they gay? Are they bisexual? What does it mean to be gay? Who knows? If they didn’t live in Iran, what would their expressions be?”

Keshavarz further explained about Iran being a very homosocial society, something that comes across visually and narratively in her film. “The sexes are constantly segregated. So one friend, who is queer, says she thinks Iran creates gays because women are always around women, so of course you’re going to fall in love with a woman if you spend a lot of time with her. If you believe most people are bisexual, and your emotions are tied to them. Sexuality is a very difficult question. Iran is very sexually charged. So many people in Iran are under 30. You walk down the street and you feel it.”

Marco Berger’s astonishing drama “Absent” has Martín (Javier De Pietro), a 16-year old student, inveigling his way to spending a night at his swimming coach Sebastián’s (Carlos Echevarría) apartment. The first half of the film bristles with seduction and danger; the second half sustains it.

In an email exchange, the queer Argentine filmmaker said that his movie, which won the Teddy Award for Best Feature Film at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, was not based on his experience but rather “a desire to talk about the desire[s] of a minor.” He found a very compelling way to portray this theme.

What makes “Absent” so remarkable is that the film is often ambiguous. Sebastián is the responsible adult who may not be fully aware of his student’s crush. But if Martin is deliberately trying to seduce his ostensibly straight teacher, the question is raised — why? Berger teases out an answer: “I want to confuse the viewer — create doubts to make it more interesting.”

One way the filmmaker creates uncertainty is by using music to make Martin’s innocent gestures — such as borrowing a T-shirt — feel sinister. “Absent” also provides a palpable erotic charge when Martin is seen sleeping in just his underwear on Sebastián’s couch, or when the characters brush forearms in a car. Many of the glances between Martín and Sebastián are freighted with meaning.

Watching Sebastian squirm as he grapples not only with his possibly platonic relationship with his student potentially being discovered, but also with his sexual identity, provides much of the film’s drama.

Berger’s painstakingly controlled, minimalist style also illuminates the conflicts of the characters. He said about his style, “I just take the time I think the story needs. I don’t have any other purpose. Maybe these two stories have a twist that make you rethink what you saw.”

“Absent” is a remarkable film that will get under viewers’ skin.

— G.K.