In Iran, holding hands in public is forbidden for unmarried couples and music can be banned for “not conforming to religious values”. Fathers expect their daughters to marry who they tell them to marry and husbands expect their wives to serve them day and night. Women cannot work or enroll their children in schools without their husband’s written approval.
But Tehran Taboo shows the other side of this: prostitutes and drug dealers do business with the very state agents who claim to uphold “morality laws”, fake hymens are on sale to restore the virginity of would-be brides, and corrupt officials offer anything from divorce papers to clandestine abortions in return for bribes or sexual favours. A debut from Iranian expat Ali Soozandeh, the film follows four young people trying to live their lives in a double-faced society, and is a touching story of friendship and the determination to enjoy life as much as it is a cutting indictment of a repressive regime.
Soozandeh’s anger at the hypocrisy of Iranian society is real, unsparingly railing at how something as small as a prank call can result in the threat of exile or execution. But the film’s bitterness does not prevent it taking an understanding and sympathetic approach to its characters. Everyone has a secret in Tehran Taboo, everyone has to lie to avoid being cracked down on by the “Morality Police”. The stories of the main characters become intertwined in ways that might seem unlikely in any other film, but here reflect how an ever-present restrictiveness brings people together and involves everyone in its deceit. The protagonists – a prostitute and her son, two liberal-minded young women, a student musician – find themselves helping each other out, moved by the common desire simply to live according to what they want from life and not what is decided for them.
The expression of that desire is also a resistance to the anonymity that the city threatens. Tehran is a city of over 8 million people, many of whom have come to find work and are instead confronted with violence and a loss of hope. In the animation, we see beggars in the background of almost every scene, and are taken into the alleys where prostitutes and poor watchmen try to make their living. Equally distressing is the sense of entrapment that characterizes even the apparently luxurious apartment block where some of the characters live. Those characters look out over the sprawling city and see birds swirling through the sky – a symbol that in the end becomes double-sided, like everything else in Tehran, expressing tragedy as well as hope.
Tehran Taboo is a daring film, daring in the sympathy it offers its characters as well as its head-on confrontation with a dangerous state. Using rotoscope animation, it presents provocative scenes that would otherwise be impossible to film while maintaining a level of human likeness. It worthy of the Anima festival, proving how animation can tackle difficult themes without simplifying them and with great humanity.