Review: ‘Tehran Taboo’

Having lived in a Muslim country all my life, the contrast between the oppressive Islamic society and the individual lives depicted in Tehran Taboo is all too familiar. The movie follows the lives of three characters: Pari, a woman with a six-year-old son forced into prostitution due to the lack of financial support from her imprisoned, drug addicted husband; Babak, a musician who has sex with the virgin Donya in an underground party; Sara, a pregnant woman seeking work against her husband’s will. Each of these characters transgress taboos within Islamic society, which could get them imprisoned – if not hanged – under the oppressive regime. While such stories exist, they are often untold and covered up in order to maintain the image of a perfectly religious society.

Tehran Taboo is animated through Rotoscopy, where live action shots are traced over to create realistic graphics. This dampens some of the explicit images in the film, especially to a more conservative Iranian audience. Moreover, this style allows the director to produce a genuine representation of Tehran while working around the fact that such movie could not be shot there due to the strict rules concerning media. This oppression of artistic freedom is also present in the movie, where Babak’s application to distribute his music is rejected due to its “Western influence and lack of adherence to Islamic values.”

The movie depicts contrasting images throughout, highlighting the dichotomous life in Tehran as well as the hypocrisy of individuals. The first scene in the movie shows Pari performing oral sex on a Taxi driver for a small sum of money while he drives. This is juxtaposed with the taxi driver’s rage when he sees his daughter holding hands with a man on the streets. This scene summarises the double standards in Tehran, especially between the men and women: the latter are inevitably more stigmatized for transgressing sexual taboos. The duality of Tehran life is depicted beautifully when a shot of a nightclub with music (which depicts normal life in Western countries) fades into a shot of a mosque and the sound of the call for prayer, reminding the viewers of the lack of escape from the oppressive rule.

To quote Babak’s friend, “it’s is more important to say ‘no’ than to breathe in Tehran,” highlighting the importance of abstaining from transgressions which ultimately leave the characters facing unjust consequences. In Babak’s case, he is left frantically searching for funds and a means of restoring the Donya’s hymen. This is due to the threat of her fiancé finding out and having them both face life threatening penalties brought forth by the state. The focus on the hymen highlights the obsession with female purity under religious dogmatism, where women could face stoning to death for losing their virginity before marriage.

In the case of Pari, she seeks an Islamic cleric at court in order to grant her a divorce. Though the cleric is meant to embody the righteousness of Islamic rule, he also highlights its corruption. The cleric promises Pari favourable ruling in court in exchange for sexual favours; he is seen exploiting his power for personal gains. In another chilling scene, Pari is depicted choking the cleric with his religious headpiece, which metaphorically represents the effect of religious ruling on individuals in society. While the movie has a dramatic narrative overall, the viewers are provided with moments of much needed comedic relief through secondary characters.

A recurring image in the film is the main characters getting their pictures taken. The background of the picture is dark for state purposes and light for personal purposes, showing the bleakness of living under an oppressive state. The movie successfully portrays the struggles of the lives of certain Iranians by focusing on untold stories rather than a general depiction of Tehran. While the reception of the movie in Iran has been mixed, Soozandeh states that this is because “it acts as a mirror,” implying that many of those who did not like it, did not want to face their reality.

Watching the movie, I was constantly frustrated as I recognised the hopeless struggle all too well. On the other hand, it felt comforting knowing that these stories are finally being told. Soozandeh’s focus on the narratives rather than challenging the regime is important as it creates awareness of such taboos that are engraved within Islamic society. In my opinion, it is currently more important to challenge such collective thinking (through media and arts) rather than challenging a regime which represents such thought. While there is still a lot to be done in terms of awareness, this movie does its best to portray the untold stories of Tehran.

– Sara Abdulnabi 

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