Tehran without Taboo

in 34th Jerusalem Film Festival

by Frédéric Ponsard

Tehran Taboo, winner of the FIPRESCI award in Jerusalem, is an animated film, which incorporates visual modernity and stunning sound, held together by a skillful script that explores the taboos of Iranian society following the 1978-79 revolution, dealing with masculine domination of women’s bodies and the hysteria surrounding sex.

Director Ali Soozandeh is an Iranian looking at Iran from outside. He left more than 20 years ago and could be accused of being out of touch with what is happening in his country. But that would be unfair because the starting point of Tehran Taboo is a true story he heard from compatriots newly arrived in Berlin where he resides. This dark tale introduces us to Pari a generous woman working as a prostitute as she struggles to raise her disabled son and divorce that father who is in jail due to drug addiction. Pari has no illusions about men and feeds on their weakness rather than going to war with them. In exchange for her charms, a lustful religious judge who issues divorce papers and work permits, puts her in an apartment. In the building she meets Sara, a young woman trapped in her appartment by her wicked stepmother’s fanatical religious beliefs. As the film progresses we get an insight into Sara’s hidden desires and secrets. She is forbidden to work and has no avenue to fulfill her dreams or entertain emancipation. A third storyline follows Barbak, a young artist who composes electronic music, mixing tango and the sounds of Tehran, which he records from his balcony. One evening at a concert high on drugs he meets Donya and they have sex in the toilets. Shortly after, Donya, who was a virgin, begs him to help her pay a surgeon to sew back her hymen as she is soon to be married. Her deeper motivations will be revealed later.

Containing prostitution, adultery, abortion, and drugs, the film has no taboos nor is it voyeuristic. The director never moralises, his characters are never judged for their behavior or self-abuse. They are individuals victimised by a relentlessly oppressive society. The movie alludes to religion as serving the men in power, who abuse their position and give free rein to their sexual perversions and lust. The film looks fantastic, and the soundtrack adds depth and vitality. It moves along to the cacophony of the incessant activity of the Iranian capital, always under surveillance. The billboards are splattered with images of mullahs, looking like medieval Big Brothers. The vice-squad always snooping, ever present. The director gives his characters the strength of personality to exist and find a certain freedom within the constraints, either by death, flight or cunning. Lastly, the use of rotoscopic animation gives the film its depth and texture. All the scenes were shot in front of a green screens with real actors. It gives the film a particular strength, which combines reality with image creation. A puddle can become blood red, blue sky black ink and a dance floor a psychedelic swirl. Animation can achieve this, but Ali Soozandeh wanted to remain close to reality, yet not too close. Following the example of Waltz with Bashir and Persepolis, Teheran Taboo gives animation a credibility that is not only artistic, but dramatic and political.

Edited by Yael Shuv