Despite being about Iranian culture, Tehran Taboo was not—and could not have been—shot in Iran, and the director, Ali Soozandeh, has mentioned in interviews that he expects he won’t be able to return to the country now that the film has been made. Watching the film, it’s not hard to see why. Soozandeh’s debut feature, as suggested by its title, is an exploration and dismantling of the strictures of modern Iranian society, particularly when it comes to sex and the agency of women.
Brought to life by a combination of rotoscope, 3D, and drawn animation, Tehran Taboo follows three separate women as they navigate religious laws and social expectations. Pari (Elmira Rafizadeh) is a kept woman and prostitute, doing her best to care for her mute son while seeking a divorce from her imprisoned husband. Sara (Zahra Amir Ebrahimi) is her neighbor, who is pregnant again after two miscarriages, and looking for work despite the objections of her husband. Finally, there’s Donya (Negar Mona Alizadeh), who’s seeking to restore her virginity for her upcoming marriage after fooling around with another man.
There are a few male characters—Babak (Arash Marandi), for instance, to whom Donya loses her virginity—but for once, they’re just the means to an end. That end is illustrating the double standards inherent in political and religious repression. For instance, the film opens with Pari agreeing to turn a trick for a taxi driver as her son sits in the back seat. As she gives him a blowjob, he sees his daughter walking down the street holding hands with a man. He immediately flies into a fit of rage, and ends up crashing his car.
Though the storylines start in disparate places, they weave together and ultimately collide. The focus on women largely keeps the film from feeling exploitative, though that sense weakens towards the end as the script starts to get heavy-handed in order to make an overarching point. The film is strongest when it’s simply following these characters’ lives as opposed to pontificating, as the hypocrisies in Iranian society come out naturally through observation. The more Soozandeh pushes for a moral, the less believable the stories become, and the weaker the ending is. The women threaten to turn into tragedies rather than human beings.
Even though they tiptoe into the realism of fabulism, the stories are still remarkably stark, and offer a look into a culture that’s rarely depicted on film. The visual style lends to the overall impact. Though it forms a complete image, it’s still spare—and a little harsh—in comparison to what the film might look like in live-action. (Granted, the illusion breaks sometimes, such as when one of the characters encounters a cat, or when props are a little too clumsily rotoscoped.) The actors’ faces also pass in and out of being recognizable, inviting the audience—particularly female viewers—to see themselves in these characters’ experiences. It also forces the viewer to put more focus on the performances. Rafizadeh and Ebrahimi in particular are standouts, especially as their characters are thrown into jeopardy.
Though Pari and Sara are easy to relate to, Soozandeh makes sure to emphasize that we can’t truly say that we’ve been in their shoes; this is an opportunity to learn rather than to fall into self-pity. The film is dotted with the public hangings of criminals, which is nigh unthinkable in contemporary America, and the way that women are constantly hemmed in not by their own actions but by the wishes of the men around them—which is somewhat less distant. Though Sara passes her job interview, she cannot actually begin work until she receives approval from her husband. To go through with an operation to restore her virginity, Donya must have parental consent.
The film’s merits are enough to keep the overly melodramatic ending from scuttling it, and the conversation around the film, which screened in the International Critics’ Week section at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, adds an extra dimension to what’s on screen. The censorship laws in Tehran prevented Soozandeh from shooting there, and using animation rather than substituting cities was a conscious choice. “You can shoot in other cities in place of Tehran like Jordan or Morocco, but it doesn’t really work,” Soozandeh said in an interview with The Dot and Line. “The city has its own look: the buildings, people, cars, clothes. It’s so special. You cannot fake it. So that is why we used animation.”
He also spoke about his desire to use filmmaking as a catalyst for change with HuffPost, noting that a large factor in many conflicting social taboos is the inability and unwillingness to discuss them. Soozandeh also seems to feel a certain responsibility to tell these stories, as he is uniquely in a position to do so; he left Iran in 1995 and has been living in Germany ever since, and Tehran Taboo is a German-Austrian production. Again, it could not actually have been made in Tehran.
Even without that mission in mind, Tehran Taboo is worth seeing. It feels timely both as a look at the lives of women as well as a more specific cultural exploration, and with any luck, Soozandeh and the actresses showcased here will be back on the big screen soon.