Thanks to the jailing of her drug-addicted husband, Pari (Elmira Rafziadeh) has been forced into prostitution, having no other way of providing for her young son. Pregnant Sara (Zahra Amir Ebrahimi) is desperate to land a job as a teacher, but her husband refuses her the necessary permission. After a one night stand with Babak (Arash Marandi), engaged Donya (Nega Monar Alizadeh) desperately needs an operation to restore the appearance of her virginity.
Living under the oppressive regime that governs Tehran, these four young people do their best to help one another. Within a society that throws up roadblocks at every turn, that is no easy task.
Written and directed by Ali Soozandeh, an Iranian ex-pat who emigrated to Germany in 1995, Tehran Taboo is animated by rotoscope. Rotoscoping is done by tracing over live-action footage, creating a striking hybrid of reality and animation; this method has been used in films including A Scanner Darkly, Sin City, and Waking Life.
Rotoscoping Tehran Taboo was as much a necessity as it was an artistic choice. The movie is a fierce critique of the Iranian government, and so filming in Tehran would have been impossible. Whilst shooting the film, actors were placed against a greenscreen, enabling Soozandeh to insert the city into the background. After the rotoscoping process, it’s hard to tell that the film was actually shot in a studio.There is another benefit to the rotoscoping: it looks dazzling.The technique makes everything in the film appear exaggerated, more vibrant. It allows Soozandeh to play fast and loose with his colour scheme, painting the sky a luminous gold, a nightclub a pulsating violet. In addition to directing actors, the rotoscoping lets Soozandeh direct the light and the scenery. The result is a rhapsodic hyperreality that gives an already explosive story even more of an edge.
From the opening scene, where Pari performs a blow-job on a client in a car while her son sits in the back seat, Tehran Taboo illustrates how hard it is to be a woman in Iran. There are moralising men to navigate, blatant hypocrisies to contend with, neighbours willing to turn you in to the police over the slightest indiscretion. The women in Soozandeh’s movie have been forced into a game they have no hope in winning. It’s infuriating, it’s depressing: it’s life in Tehran.
There are many words you could use to describe Tehran Taboo, but subtle would not be one of them. If the movie has one flaw, it’s that it can be manipulative. All of the characters are just here to illuminate Soozandeh’s message about the oppressiveness of Iranian society. It’s their only function. Although the world is immersive, it is difficult to connect with the characters when they are such obvious constructs. Ultimately, that lessens the impact of what should have been a terribly emotional finale.
Still, with such a wide array of wrongs to rail against, that lack of subtlety is easy to forgive. Tehran Taboo is an infectiously furious movie – whilst the arresting visuals are immersive in the moment, the memory of that fury lasts much longer.