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.”

Pari

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”

Elias

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.

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Dying with Indignity in Iran

Published on: https://iranwire.com/en/blogs/693/4344

In this guest blog, Dr Nima Ghadiri describes the harrowing experience of the end-of-life care his grandmother received in an Iranian hospital, and the betrayal of the principles of bioethics, which were first identified many centuries ago by Iranian polymaths, including Avicenna and Razi.

Avicenna (left) and Razi (right), Persian physicians and polymaths who helped define the principles of bioethics, used by healthcare professionals to this day

My beloved grandmother and closest friend Batool Sepassi died in an Iranian Hospital ICU (Intensive Care Unit) following a short illness.

During the course of a viral illness, she became increasingly short of breath and had to be admitted to a local private hospital. She had a chest infection and was taken to the intensive care unit accompanied by close family. At this point the family had separated to go to the payment desk, and my grandmother was taken to ICU, though no medical history was taken nor treatment started until payment was organized (the privilege of private healthcare).

There were some major flaws in treatment. Having been admitted with a chest problem, it took 30 hours for a chest consultant to see my grandmother, though not without a battle — we were told “this patient is not on my list” — and a serviceable X-ray was only taken the following day.

My family was only allowed an hour a day to visit my grandmother, which was extremely hard given that she thrived on closeness to family and friends. My close relatives stayed outside all day the ICU to be able to glance at my grandmother from a distance and hear her calling out for them. This was a traumatic experience, particularly when they heard the expressions “Saaket” or “Khafeh Sho” (“Shut up”) from my grandmother when she was undergoing procedures. My grandmother loved to communicate and form bonds with people, and appreciated having her close ones hold her hand during medical procedures. During all of her stay, her arm was outstretched to hold someone’s hand, but there was no one there and her hands were eventually fastened to the bed.

The course of the disease was unpredictable, and ultimately a poor prognosis was given, i.e. the chances of my grandmother’s survival diminished. During this period, interactions with nurses and doctors were punctuated by disregard and dismissal. For example, when one relative noticed that the nebulisers were inserted in my grandmother’s eyes rather than her nostrils (where they belong), this fact was dismissed with a “oh, her oxygen was high”. There were a few good doctors and nurses, but they were conspicuously outnumbered by the poor ones. When my cousin objected against intubation (insertion of a tube into the lungs) for the last few hours of life, instead of explaining the rationale, the doctor shouted at her “Do you want to kill your grandmother?” It took a lot of pressure to prevent the ICU team from doing a completely needless invasive procedure (kidney dialysis) with just a few hours of life remaining and kidney test results that had been unchanged for years.

Nevertheless, simple measures such as giving my grandmother something to drink were considered a luxury. When my grandmother was deteriorating, no provision was made to allow her to be close to loved ones. She and her family did not want her to be in an intensive care unit, and not only was she kept there against her will during the treatment phase, but she was kept there when she was about to die.

I asked my cousin to connect her to me by video call before her death during the one-hour visiting period. Her eyes were initially closed, but as soon as she heard my voice, they opened wide. Her mouth was entirely bandaged apart from a tube coming out of it, but I could see the outline of her lips moving briskly underneath all the bandages. She wanted to say something, and had never been stopped from talking to me before. She started vigorously shaking her tied arms in an attempt to communicate with me, but then realized her efforts were fruitless and her eyes started welling up with tears. In all my years of knowing her, I don’t remember her crying. She died just over an hour later, curtains drawn and no loved ones around her.

Nothing could have prepared me for this image, which remains traumatically imprinted in my mind. It will be a memory I will never forget. I keep wondering what she wanted to say – was she saying goodbye to me, or asking me to convey a message: to look after my mother, my brother, or help someone desperately in need? Finding the answer to this is a futile quest, but it is a rumination that will, sadly, remain.

Dying alone, with family not allowed to be with her is one thing, but my family were also denied the chance to see her after death. Only after begging were they able to get a brief glimpse of her in the corridor prior to entering the mortuary after challenging the comment, “She’s gone, why don’t you just go now”.

Passing away is an inevitable part of people’s existence, but the environment for this chapter of life is so important. As a doctor who works in the United Kingdom’s National Health Service, I have been well-versed in the importance of dignity in death. But in Iran, a country whose polymaths helped define the early principles of bioethics, it is unfathomable that core bioethical values were denied for such a sweet soul as my grandmother, and potentially for others. These principles include Non-Maleficence — not performing unnecessary procedures that serve just to prolong the patient’s life and often cause distress and pain to the patient — and Autonomy – respect for the desires and values of the patient, including how they want to be treated and how they want to die.

In my grandmother’s case this was with her family around her and without fruitless procedures. Denying someone’s spirit and character so manifestly in their final days and hours is criminal. These sentiments were shared by my family, and indeed being able to spend time with a loved one before and after their death to say goodbye should be a basic right, rather than just being able to observe this sorrowful moment from a distance. It should not be such as Sisyphean effort to spend time with a loved one and find out what happened during a hospital stay, hampered at all stages by a lack of sympathy and empathy alongside a degree of ageism against someone who is perceived as just a bed number rather than a human being.

A photo of Nima Ghadiri’s grandmother holding a pomegranate on Shab-e Yalda (An ancient Persian festival commemorating the Winter Solstice), three weeks before she died

I remain always indebted to my grandmother for looking after me as a child in the United Kingdom and being someone I could talk to and share my life with for so much of my existence. Even at her age, she had the spirit of someone many decades younger, was full of life and brought joy to so many. She shared all she had with charity and those less fortunate than herself. Strangers often commented on how sweet and bright she was and I used to talk to her about films, technology and current affairs. She remained a fountain of wisdom and I could not have dreamt of a better grandmother. Her grandchildren remain traumatized by the manner in which she has gone, and the suffering and abuse that she endured. Because she was such a positive and life-loving soul, I do not want the final page of her life to be negative. I am not sure how yet, but I know that I would be happy if the discussion arises for Iran, the country of Avicenna, Razi and numerous others, to re-discover what care, particularly at the end of life, means. Perhaps in the future, I will open a palliative care institute in her name.

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