Tehran Taboo – Film Review

Tehran Taboo is released 5/10/2018 in UK Cinemas

Tehran Taboo, the debut film from Iranian writer-director Ali Soozandeh, is released today (5th October) in UK cinemas.  This rotoscope-animated film presents a hyper-stylised portrayal of Tehran with an emotional poignance that this technique of animation, when combined with an atmospheric and sometimes chilling soundtrack, can deliver in spades. Films like Waltz with Bashir, Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly have already experimented successfully with this method of drawing and colouring over material.  Indeed, it appears to be tailor-made for this film which could of course not be made, nor released, in the country in which it is set.

Before watching the film, I was very interested in the director’s quote:

“I get a lot of positive feedback from Iranians living in Iran. The feedback from Iranians living outside Iran is rather negative. They are usually angry with the film. Because the film damages the image we present of ourselves to the West.”


Perhaps this reflects the fact that life for many in Iran is riddled by contradictions and hypocrisies, and the hyper-real portrayal in this film packs a visceral punch for those who live in the country, whereas those who have left Iran may choose to default to a more rosy-tinted nostalgic view.

Tehran Taboo starts with a bang. Immediately, you can tell why this film could not be made in Iran, as a taxi driver who claims he is “not Bill Gates” haggles with prostitute Pari whilst her mute son Elias is chewing bubble gum in back seat of a taxi. This sets the stall for a murky, often shocking, noir exploration of the idiosyncrasies in contemporary Tehran through multiple strands. One of these is a  young musician’s quest to “fix the virginity” of a girl he had a one-night-stand with at one of Tehran’s notorious underground raves, a week before the woman is supposedly due to get married to a faceless thug.

There are moments of dark humour, such as the protagonists’ search for an artificial hymen:

“This is the original model, 100% Chinese.  You know it’s good because the Westerners copied it”


Later Elias provides a funny moment when asked if he knew sign language and proceeds to mimic a highly offensive gesture he had just seen some children do.   The mute boy is the only totally innocent character in film drowning in various shades of grey, quietly observing the Machiavellianism and the tragedy around him.  Conversely, one of the film’s antagonists is an adipose cleric who sets up an arrangement for Pari to provide him intimate favours in exchange for allowing her to divorce her drug-addicted husband.  Themes of patriarchy and societal misogyny permeate throughout a film in which every man and woman has to look out for themselves, and everything and anyone can be bargained for. The separate narrative threads become progressively entwined during the course of the film, and the tight structure calls to mind films such as Pulp Fiction and Amores Perros.

Rotoscoping seems to accentuate emotional moments, and facial expressions are highly framed, such that even the most nuanced of eyebrow raises become much more obvious.  One of the lead characters is portrayed by Arash Marandi, the go-to guy for genre-hopping films set in Iran but filmed abroad such as Iranian Vampire-Western “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” and socio-political supernatural horror “Under the Shadow”.  In this film, his distinctive large and innocent eyes are emphasised to an aptly cartoonish intensity.

Pari speaking to her neighbour Sara

The background art is detailed and atmospheric, from the vistas of the never-ending sprawl of Tehran, to the vehicles and alleyways which are explored through the multi-layered narrative.  They are also very authentic, impressive given that the film has been made abroad.  Even if the bleak narrative itself does not necessarily beg for repeat viewing, the detailed and intricate backgrounds which are a very realistic portrayal of today’s Tehran, do.

Overall, the film is a stark and pessimistic portrayal of Tehran itself, which provides fascinating viewing for even those who have never even heard of Jafar Panahi or Abbas Kiarostami, let alone seen their films. Certain aspects of the film are slightly outdated, such as the morality police, less prominent now than is portrayed in the movie.  At times, the pace of the film’s consecutive punches renders the viewer overwhelmed, and I was begging for a little respite towards the end.  

Nevertheless, it remains an apposite metaphor for the ongoing psychological corrosion in the city’s collective psyche.  The film may not quite get the traction required to deliver the social change which is the aim of the film’s creator, but it is another seed on top of a mountain waiting to be sown. We can only wonder what Ali Soozandeh will do next.


Why wine is integral to Persian culture



Source: http://www.economist.com/blogs/prospero/2016/09/shiraz-shiraz

IT IS easy to assume that Iran has never been a site of drunken revelries. Westerners imagine Iranians to be a homogenously pious and modest group, and so suppose that viticulture is wholly foreign to them. This image is not helped by recent legislative action; in January, the government banned the printing of the word “wine” in all books as it deemed the beverage an element of a “Western cultural onslaught”. Yet suggesting that drinking is a quasi-blasphemous act obfuscates the fact that alcohol—and wine in particular—has been an inextricable part of Iranian culture and identity for millennia. Indeed, current estimates suggest that Iranians imbibe around 60m litres of alcohol a year despite the government crackdown.

During the heady reign of the Pahlavis (1925-79) Iranians freely indulged in drinking as it was legally permissible to do so. While it is true that legislation was much more liberal before the Revolution than it is today (one need only take a glance at popular pre-Revolution Iranian cinema and advertisements of the era), the Pahlavi dynasty was far from the first to openly tolerate drinking. Indeed, the oldest-known traces of grape wine—found in the Zagros Mountains in western Iran—date back some 7,000 years.

In Aryan times (the early part of the second millennium B.C. onwards), it is said that with the wine given to him by the Prophet Zarathustra, King Vishtaspa beheld God in a vision and thus became the Prophet’s first convert. Herodotus stated that wine played a key political role in the Achaemenid Empire (550-330 B.C.): “It is their custom to deliberate the gravest matters when they are drunk…and if, being sober, they still approve it, they act on it.” The opposite was also true; “if they have deliberated about a matter when sober, they decide upon it when they are drunk.”

It was not because of its practical and prophetical uses that wine left an indelible mark on the Iranian psyche, however. In the wake of the Arab invasion in the seventh century A.D., Iran experienced its most profound cultural renaissance. Longing for a revival of the suppressed Persian language and Iranian culture, the Samanids (819-999 A.D.) were patrons of the poets who brought about a renaissance of Persian literature. Rudaki extolled wine, and Daqiqi, in doing so, praised the Zoroastrian faith of his ancestors and the House of Sassan (224-651 A.D.), in which wine was imbibed in no small measure. “Four things there are dear, which I so need,” Daqiqi famously declared. “The ruby-coloured lip, the harp’s lament, the blood-red wine and Zarathustra’s creed.” In longing for the drink that had once fuelled the Persian Empire, the poet revealed an affection for Iran’s pre-Islamic past.

Later poets would come to be synonymous with wine-swigging and bacchanalia. Omar Khayyam’s “Robaiyat” (1048–1131 A.D.) is a celebration of wine in the face of transience. “Drink wine,” Khayyam exhorted, “for long under the earth shall you sleep”. Hafez’s odes, too, brim with references to wine. “Sick I am of the hypocrite’s cloak and his shrine”, he complained. “Where is the Magian temple and its pure wine?” Some scholars have posited that Hafez uses wine as a symbol of divine, not earthly, intoxication, but his vivid descriptions of both wine and drunkenness suggest an intimacy with his source material. To such an extent did these poets exalt alcohol that it has arguably been the image most associated with Persian poetry. Goethe, who, like many other European writers of the age had been charmed by Persian poetry and philosophy, wrote in his “West-East Diwan”: “Hafiz…to love like thee, like thee to drink, shall be my pride, shall be my life.” It was a tribute both to the medieval Persian sage and to his choice of subject.

European accounts of Safavid and Qajar-era Iran (1785-1925) dispel any doubt about the longstanding Iranian penchant for wine. Early adventurers such as John Ussher, Charles James Wills and Henry Austen Layard, told far less of “Mahometan” piety in their travelogues than they did of debauchery and dissolution. Orgies, topless female musicians and boozing were very much “the order of the day”, according to Ussher. Even mullahs instructed foreigners in the Iranian art of winemaking. So enamoured of wine were these Iranians that many of the travellers who encountered them could hardly fathom that they were pious. “The people were a laughing, careless set, devoid of fanaticism, having indeed very little religion,” wrote Wills. “Nearly all drank wine to excess.”

Whether for divine revelation, administration of empire or simply a good time, Iranians have long tippled wine. What would Persian poetry be without Khayyam’s drunken verses and Hafez’s Magian wine? What decisions would the Achaemenids have made without it? What little would remain of the Qajar portraits of topless wine-tippling belles and the Safavid frescoes of Esfahan’s palaces, brimming with scenes of drunken revelry, had there not been any cupbearers? The word may be exorcised from Persian schoolbooks today, but, try as some might, wine can never be washed from the Iranian soul. Iranian history paints a purple-stained picture that some, perhaps, would rather leave bottled up.