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.
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.