Tehran Taboo (2017): Written by Grit Kienzlen and Ali Soozandeh, directed by Ali Soozandeh. Starring: Arash Marandi, Morteza Tavakoli, Alireza Bayram, and Zahra Amir Ebrahimi. Running Time: 90 minutes.
When I watch movies like Tehran Taboo, I can’t help reflecting on how absurd our efforts to regulate and control human sexuality ultimately are. The harder we seek to dominate our most basic instinct from the top down, the more it all inevitably backfires in ways that completely undermine whatever you were trying to achieve in the first place. It’s the states with the strongest focus on abstinence-only Sex Ed and the least comprehensive access to contraception that have the worst rates of teen pregnancy. And the countries, cultures, and social systems that work the hardest to write sex and sexuality out of daily human life are the places where everything you say or do ultimately twists around on itself to, in the end, be ALL about sex and little else.
This rotoscope-animated work by Ali Soozandeh follows three women of various ages living in Tehran, whose lives slowly start to intersect more and more intimately. A prostitute tries to raise her son alone, an already-hard task made harder by the fact that just about EVERYTHING in Iranian life requires a husband’s permission to do. A young girl from the country, in the city to marry an arranged bride, has a drunken fling with an aspiring musician in an underground club shortly before the wedding, then realizes they have to find a way to medically “reconstruct” her virginity, otherwise her fiancé will kill them both. An older housewife is finally pregnant after several miscarriages, but despite her joy, this only complicates her desires for more than what her quiet life with a banker and his parents affords her.
This is a movie that builds itself on small, quiet moments with the characters, revealing just how much of their thoughts and feelings they feel compelled to hide from society just to survive. The prostitute is a particularly tough cookie, something she clearly has to be; when a taxi driver insults her, she simply scratches an insult into the back of his seat for the next passenger to see, then gets out at the next corner, and when a school director insults her child, she doesn’t hesitate to throw a few choice insults right back. This seems to be the core of what draws the housewife to her when they discover that they live in the same apartment complex- the prostitute’s fearlessness is something the housewife has never had, could never have.
While the friendship between these older women blossoms, the young girl and musician find themselves forced to jump through one ridiculous hoop after another trying to find some solution, any solution, that will let them extricate themselves from their predicament scot-free, and as the film draws on they both become increasingly afraid that there really might be no way out. So much of the daily inequities between men and women, and so many of the extreme consequences dished out for even holding hands in a world determined to keep men and women separate, are so laughably absurd, but at the same time so darkly sad. In the end, stories like these can’t help but end in tragedy.
The film is not without its flaws- the animation, while it does work for the film, is not of the highest quality, and there are some storytelling inconsistencies regarding the timeline of what is happening and when that struck me as being easily fixed- but this is still a powerful film regardless, an experience that will stick with you afterwards. Every society in the world still struggles to handle the human sex instinct, and in every society in the world still, in their various ways, tries to keep the female half of the population in subservience, and all that accomplishes is to hold us all back and make life darker than it has to be. Let’s be appreciative of the films that allow us to remember and refocus on that when they come along.