VIFF 2017 Review: Tehran Taboo

Tehran Taboo

Tehran Taboo is an animated look at the business of prostitution in modern-day Iran.

I started my trip to the Vancouver International Film Festival seeing an animated film called Tehran Taboo. This film is a very telling film in its subject matter and how it plays out in animation.

The story begins with Pari. She’s recently separated from her drug-addicted husband who’s now in prison. To get anywhere in Iran, including getting better things for her 5 year-old mute son Elias, she needs her husband’s signature on documents. She pleads to a judge with religious connections to no avail, but makes her an offer for her to be a ‘madam’ under his system. She refuses at first, but soon changes her mind. She is introduced to the prostitution business and is even given residency for her and her son.

Sara appears to have a happy marriage with her banker husband Mohsen, but it’s not. She finds the marriage discomforting especially since her in-laws are in the way. She finds a way into the system of prostitution. She even ‘works’ with Pari.

Babak is a traditional musician trying to make a name for himself. One night after a lousy show, he has sex with a woman she dances with. The next day, she comes to him saying she needs an operation in her vagina to make her appear like a virgin. She claims she’s getting married in five days. If her fiance finds out, he’ll have her killed. It’s up to Babak to get the money for the operation or find a serum. He even meets up with a hard man she claims to be her fiance.

All three situations criss-cross in the middle of Tehran. All three meet different endings. In the end, the truth about Sara is revealed to Mohsen. It’s right after she makes a phone call for a prostitution request to a man of high government ranking. The man then orders her number traced by the morality police. Sara eventually loses it all. Babak would also lose it all. Just as he is on the verge of coming across the money needed for the operations, he witnesses public hangings. That could be an omen of his own demise. We also learn that the woman was not to be married, but part of a prostitution business where virgins are paid higher money. Despite the difficulties, things work out for Pari. She’s able to make a good income and be able to send Elias to a good school.

This animated film– animated through rotoscope– is an impressive story about three situations all intersecting with the world of prostitution. They all face their own challenges as all have to deal with the laws in Iran: both law-based and religion-based. The influence of religion is seen throughout the film as there’s cases where the husband is required to authorize along with the wife, religious clerics hold high jobs, and the morality police all around ready to arrest even on public signs of affection. Even the fact that there’s such thing as a Morality Police gives an insight of what type of system Iran has been under since the Islamic Revolution of 1978.

Prostitution is very much a hush-hush business almost universally but you can bet it is especially secretive in Iran. We’re talking about a country where adultery is considered grounds for execution. However it’s seen by these three women as a chance to make a higher income. This is especially beneficial since the income for the average Iranian is very low. Pari has a chance to receive a better life for herself and her son thanks to her work, and the red tape of a judge involved. Sara sees prostitution as a chance to escape the strain of her marriage, especially with pushy in-laws. However this ring of prostitution is a detriment for Babak as he finds himself dealing in this business without him knowing. We learn that ‘fiance’ is actually part of the business too much too late for Babak.

This is a story that takes three situations in Tehran and often has them criss-crossing together through each of the characters. Even the protagonists in one of the sub-plots will find themselves involved in the other two plots too. The three stories intersect with both the photo studio where the photographer would take pictures of those involved and Elias the mute son who says nothing, but is a witness to all that goes on. The story plays itself out both as a story with a lot of intrigue and even some comedic moments, like when they have to deal with a gynecologist with poor personal hygiene or the photographer always changing backgrounds.

SPOILER WARNING: In the end, it’s Pari who’s the one that benefits most from this system of prostitution, if not the only one benefiting at all. Babak finds himself stuck in the middle of what would become what many believe to be his tragic fate in the end. Sara loses it all in the end, and it’s obvious her drug-induced jump at the end is a suicide. It’s evident she feels like she has nothing to live for. Pari, on the other hand, had the unfairness in her favor. She struggled with the unfairness of the Iranian legal system demanding her husband’s signature for many things; that’s the law in Iran. How could she when her ex-husband is in prison? But when the Iranian judge offered her an entry into the prostitution business, it opened doors for her and Elias. It even allowed her to achieve things without her husband’s signature. Despite the struggles, it appears Pari is the only one who won.

This is the first feature-length animated film for Ali Soozandeh. Ali was born in Iran but would emigrate to Germany. It’s easy to see why the film’s countries of production are listed as Germany and Austria. There’s no way Iran would allow for a film like this to be released! The film which he directed and co-wrote with Grit Kienzlen is a very good story of intrigue and will raise a lot of eyebrows about what’s going on ‘underground’ in a country like Iran. All the actors did their parts very well, whether it be doing their voices or acting for their rotoscope images. I feel the rotoscope method of animation fits the film very well in terms of telling its story. Rotoscope also helped well with Waltz With Bashir a few years ago.

Tehran Taboo is an excellent animated film about the secrets of Iran few know about. The stories of those involved, and why they do it, are made very clear.

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