Iranian social commentary-driven animated films are, unarguably, a niche sector of the film industry. However, director Ali Soozandeh uses this to his advantage to expose the double standards that exist in Iran surrounding sex, which makes for an original and compelling fictional drama.
Tehran Taboo centres around three women, Pari, Sara and Donya, who are victims of a society that restricts their freedom and punishes their agency. Pari, a single mother whose incarcerated ex-husband refuses to grant her a divorce, is forced to go into prostitution to provide for her young son. Out of sheer desperation, she agrees to become the mistress of a judge from the Islamic Revolutionary Court, who houses Pari and her son in one of his apartments. It’s there that she meets Sara, a pregnant woman seeking work in spite of her husband’s disapproval. The two women strike up a friendship but remain secretive about certain aspects of their lives. Across town, Donya is in crisis after she has sex with a stranger, Babak, at an underground party. Donya is engaged and is expected to be a virgin upon marriage, so Babak aids her in seeking out a doctor who can perform an illicit “virginity restoration” operation so that her fiancé never finds out what happened.
Soozandeh doesn’t hesitate in juxtaposing the verbal and physical abuse that the women receive for their sexuality with the devil-may-care attitude of their male counterparts. The double standard is established from the very first scene where a taxi driver pays Pari to perform a sexual act on him, during which he happens to drive past his daughter holding hands with a man and goes completely insane; the irony would be amusing if it weren’t so demoralising.
The film’s uniqueness stems as much from its technology as its narrative, and it benefits greatly from the use of rotoscoping (a type of animation whereby an animator traces over film footage). This technique not only produces more realistic visuals than regular animation, but it also gives the director more creative freedom. When interviewed about the filming process, Soozandeh revealed that he couldn’t make it film live-action due to Iranian censorship issues, so the use of rotoscoping allowed him to explicitly portray the ‘taboos’ in Tehran without physically filming there.
Tehran Taboo is an unsettling insight into the cyclical oppression that many women face in Iran. Although at times it drags and feels longer than its 96-minute runtime, its subject matter undoubtedly warrants your full, undivided attention.
Image credit: Kino Lorber / mfah.org