Tehran Taboo

Germany/Austria (2017) Dir. Ali Soozandeh 

Regular visitors to this site will be aware of the films reviewed from Iran and the Middle East dealing with the moral patriarchal corruption and archaic attitudes towards women. Some have even been animations, proving to be as hard hitting as any live action film, which Tehran Taboo looks to take this use of the medium a step further.

Modern day Tehran, and Pari (Elmira Rafizadeh) is desperate to divorce her imprisoned drug-dealer husband but he won’t consent. To support her mute son Elias (Bilal Yasar), Pari is forced to work as a prostitute often taking Elias with her on calls. A judge (Hasan Ali Mete) moves Pari into a new apartment where she meets young couple Sara (Zahra Amir Ebrahimi) and Mohsen (Alireza Bayram).

Sara is pregnant but wants to work to escape her in-laws, but Mohsen refuses to give his authorisation. Meanwhile, at an underground nightclub, musician Babak (Arash Marandi) hooks up with Donya (Negar Mona Alizadeh) in the toilets. The next day, Donya calls Babak, explaining she is due to marry and has to be a virgin, demanding he pay for the operation to repair her hymen, requiring money he hasn’t got.

On first inspection, Tehran Taboo doesn’t look like it is offering anything new but in fact in peels back many layers of our perception of Iranian society to reveal a side we have yet to see in such intimate detail on film. This is the reason Ali Soozandeh made the film via rotoscoping animation, because they would never be able to shoot any of it in Iran but by using actors in front of a green screen, anything is possible.

Iran’s draconian strictness also explains why this is a German/Austrian production, whilst Soozandeh and his cast being Iranian and/or ex-pats adds extra credibility and realism to the portrayal of Tehran. This also allows Soozandeh to explore topics that would otherwise be glossed over and feature verboten explicit content like drug taking, nudity, and sexual talk and activity.

Normally this would feel gratuitous and seedy and being animated would only add to the discomfort but in this context, the exact opposite is true – it demands to explicit and the scenes are congruent to the plot, whilst being an animation allows for certain scenes to not only push the boundaries but makes things, like Pari’s fellatio on a taxi driver mid transit with Elias in the back seat somehow less shocking were it live action.

The themes might be typical for an Iranian set film but the stories told are refreshingly atypical, more akin to European cinema and the outer fringes of indie Hollywood. Pari’s working girl with son in tow scenario is based on Soozandeh overhearing a conversation between two Iranian men discussing their experiences with women, which we are left to surmise is either a reflection of or in direct opposition to Iran’s strict social mores.

However, Pari is only selling herself with her husband being in jail and his refusal to sign any divorce papers is the reason she is in this position. There is no backstory to show whether this is Pari’s true self or simply desperation; she seems somewhat resigned to this life with no hint this would change if she did get her divorce.

Pari’s deal with the judge concerns mutual back scratching – she gets an apartment for her and Elias, he gets his own personal concubine. Having a judge in her… ahem… pocket does have other benefits for Pari, which pays off in other ways once the individual threads begin to intertwine.

Sara’s plight represents a more standard female oppression as a married woman. She’s not as gregarious as Pari, but behind Mohsen’s back Sara secretly tries many things to lift the funk that consumes her. Often Sara and her in-laws look after Elias whilst Pari is at work (as a “nurse” which nearly backfires in one funny scene) but her motherly side never seems to surface.

Donya and Babak’s city wide hunt to find a cheap quack to restore Donya’s virginity sounds like a bad taste comedy, but female purity a big issue under Islam; in one scene a man is arrested for holding his girlfriend’s hand in public. Why betrothed Donya slept with Babak in the first place isn’t raised but when the truth comes out in the final act, we find a tragic woman trapped by the double standards of sexual activity.

In all honesty, these problems could easily translate to any society in any country but the vital difference is the reaction to them. Some of these situations simply wouldn’t occur in most countries, which is why it is important a film like this exists – to make us appreciate the freedoms we take for granted. That this would be an underground release in Iran means it won’t instigate change but might force some to recognise the problem at hand.

For the rest of us, the story is not just revelatory but the script is sharp and incisive but holds back on its outrage, letting the incidents do the talking. The cast deserve huge credit for being able to work against green screens pretending they are in a room, the street, a hospital, a school, etc. and create such fascinating well-rounded characters we can empathise with and root for.

Rotoscoping animation is always jarring at first but we settle into this one rather quickly, thanks in part to the slightly scrappy backgrounds which blend well with the cartoonised actors. This creates an often-quirky sensation like a surrealist work yet at the same time enhances the grittiness of the drama.

Tehran Taboo’s existence as a production from outside of Iran is a sad indictment of the problems endemic in its backwards, archaic society, but as I’ve said before, the bitter irony is we wouldn’t get such important and vital pieces of cinema as this film if this weren’t the case. A highly recommended film without question.