Tehran Taboo (4 stars)

Tehran Taboo

Bold and astute Iran-set animation, from debut helmer Ali Soozandeh

With its bold stylistic approach and astute narrative, animation Tehran Taboo is a rousing debut from Iranian-born filmmaker Ali Soozandeh. Now residing in Germany, Soozandeh utilises an effective rotoscoping technique in order to present a study of Iranian sexual politics that would likely have been impossible to make in his home country.

The style is no gimmick, it is, like Nora Twomey's recent The Breadwinner, both an access point to a damning social critique and a way to make the relentless trauma somewhat more palatable. Indeed, as we follow four Tehran residents resorting to increasingly desperate measures to make life more bearable, events often threaten to overwhelm. But that's entirely the point. For many Iranians, life under strict Islamic law is a daily litany of horror.

That's especially true for sex worker Pari (Elmira Rafizadeh), who has no option but to take her mute, five-year-old son Elias (Bilal Yasar) along with her when she works. She desperately needs a judge to sign her divorce papers, but also needs her husband's permission. That the judge piously spouts the law at her, while also using her after-dark services, is just one of the flagrant hypocrisies that form the backbone of life in this city.

As underscored by the shadowy, smoky animation and use of reflective surfaces – mirrors, televisions, rain spattered streets – we see that, beneath the facade of strict religious and moral codes, Tehran is pulsing with secrets and lies. This is a city where street corner drug dealers offer a means of escape, just as men, religious or otherwise, have the freedom to indulge their every nasty vice.

Men, however, also fall foul of the strict moral codes. Babak (Arash Marandi), for example, is forced to pay for an operation to restore the virginity of a woman he has drunken sex with in a club toilet. But it is, of course, the women who suffer the most. Unable to do anything without the permission of a man, they are forced into subservient roles, whether wholesome or clandestine.

This might be a story painted in broad strokes, but Tehran Taboo hums with powerful, difficult truths that are distilled in the character of Elias. As a silent, ever-present observer – whether in the back seat of a parked car while his mother works, or in the care of an unhappily pregnant neighbour whose husband's refusal to allow her to work forces extreme action – there is a sense that he is absorbing all of the city's convoluted codes of conduct. Whatever life throws at him, Elias will know how to play the game and, unlike his mother, be in a position to bend the rules to his advantage.

Selected release from Fri 5 Oct.

Tehran Taboo

  • 4 stars
  • 2017
  • 1h 30min
  • 15
  • Directed by: Ali Soozandeh
  • Cast: Farhad Abadinejad, Jasmina Ali, Rozita Assadollahy
  • UK release: 5 October 2018

The story of four Tehran residents, in which men, religious or otherwise, have the freedom to indulge their every nasty vice. Soozandeh makes the bold choice of using rotoscoping techniques to depict a city pulsing with secrets, lies and trauma, resulting in a study of Iranian sexual politics that would likely have been…