Tehran Taboo ultimately struggles to have the impact it wants, but does offer an an interesting take on difficult topics and do a good job of introducing audiences to themes not often presented in cinema today.
Rotoscope is rare in today’s cinema, and whether or not it enhances or devalues Tehran Taboo is up for debate. The film follows four core characters – three women and one man – each with their own set of challenges in modern day Tehran, including a repressive marriage, prostitution and threat of imprisonment. We follow these characters as they try by any means possible to improve their situation; however, it does not quite work for the most part. Directed by Ali Soozandeh, who previously worked on part animated film The Green Wave, a part animated documentary on the Iranian 2010 revolution, Tehran Taboo has a similar political tone throughout, exploring themes of human trafficking, women’s rights in Iran, sexual assault, and the state of Iran’s human rights laws.
The narrative of the film is well paced with the characters receiving nearly equal amounts of attention. Interestingly, however, the male protagonist receives the most development despite his issues being arguably the least traumatic. It does feel that there are two paths this film could have taken, and rather than confidently choosing one, the director tries to incorporate both in subsequently lesser forms. First is the more obvious narrative format of the interlinking narrative arcs of each protagonist. The second is the narrative being played out through the eyes on the son of one of the women, which is a strong reoccurring theme throughout. Had the director chosen to lean into one of these structures with more vigour, the the whole overarching narrative of the film would flow much more seamlessly, with jumps between past and present confusing things further.
It is refreshing to see a film that does cover such abrasive subjects so matter-of-factly. Soozandeh does not shy away from problematic topics, and this honesty works well to counteract the muting effect the rotoscope style has on the overall tone of the film. In some places, the rotoscope can be alienating, the almost 2D effect creating a degree of separation between the events on screen and the viewer, but it is worth persevering through. The combination of heavy social themes and almost-animation may not be appealing to everyone, and I do feel that had the film been live action it would have gained a wider audience reach to begin with, as the rotoscope does not add much in the way of stylistic loopholes and is arguably not a necessary element in the story telling success of the film.
A clever and humorous script works in the film’s advantage to maintain interest as the narrative progresses, and the ambiguity of the resolution contributes well to the message the film is trying to convey. The themes of the film are issues that should be given a voice in cinema more often, making it a shame the release was so limited in the UK. If you can keep up with the many plots, tangled character threads, then Tehran Taboo provides a refreshing look at Iran’s political state through likable characters, although I can’t guarantee you won’t be blindsided by the extreme aesthetics.
Tehran Taboo (2017), directed by Ali Soozandeh, is released on DVD and VOD in the UK by Peccadillo Pictures, certificate 15.