Dir. Ali Soozandeh
Featured at The Boston Festival of Films from Iran
January 4–17, 2018
Tehran Taboo, a robocoped film written and directed by Iranian-born Ali Soozandeh, succeeds on many levels—story, filming technique, and thought-provoking issues, particularly those involving women living in religious Islamic societies like Iran. For audiences from Western democracies who take in the story at face value, a second, later response might also arise: Wait, is Tehran really such a moral-authority police state, a reign of terror for its citizens? Or was the film slightly satiric? No, the film is honest and presents true conditions. It’s reminiscent of Eastern European literature during the communist era, which read like theater of the absurd, but captured the state of a tyrannized society.
The film’s opening scene takes place inside a car where a prostitute named Pari (Elmira Rafizadeh) takes cash to give the driver a blow job, while he’s driving. Her six-year-old mute son Elias sits in the backseat and presumably accompanies his mother regularly on jobs, making us wonder if that’s the reason he’s mute. The blow job comes to a jolting stop when the driver sees his daughter holding hands with a man in the street. All hell breaks loose at this breach of code.
Soon after, Pari finds an easier way to survive by becoming the mistress of a corrupt judge who has been rejecting her petition for a divorce for years for lack of her husband’s signature. In the film, women need their husbands’ or parents’ signed permission for any civil transaction, from taking a job to dealing with banks to getting a divorce. The judge sets Pari up in a nice apartment, and we soon meet the other protagonists in the story who also have apartments in the building, causing their lives to intersect. Babak is a young musician making a living in a sex-hot disco. One night he has bathroom sex with a pretty woman named Donya, and the next day finds out she has to get her virginity back or her “Hulk Hogan” financé will kill her and probably Babak as well. Thus begins Babak’s odyssey to help Donya out of her trouble, which increasingly becomes his.
Once installed in her new apartment, Pari zeroes in on her neighbors, a lovely young woman named Sara and her traditional husband, a banker. We learn they’ve been trying for years to have a baby and finally Sara’s pregnant. Her husband’s parents live with them, the father retired and vegging in front of pornography on the TV, and the mother an unpleasant busy-body. Pari makes friends with the family so that Elias can have a babysitter when she’s out servicing the judge. Sara and Pari share a few meaningful chats that bring them closer as women, despite the disparity in their social positions, for Sara has a college degree but is prevented from teaching by her husband. Because of the babysitting, Sara and Elias also develop a relationship, as if Sara’s restricted world leaves her only the emotional level and company of a six-year-old.
Soon Pari finds out about Babak and Donya’s problem and tries to help each of them. We register that a social pariah like Pari has more freedom to operate in the outside world than a sheltered wife like Sara. Sadly, Pari isn’t able to help Sara in a sudden, personal predicament, which concludes the movie on an ominous note.
The film’s use of roboscoping—animation traced over real-life footage—heightens our audience fascination, for we realize how close we feel to the characters and their problems despite their “unreal” portrayals. Much sensitivity and humanity went into creating these characters, and the irresolution of their nightmarish situations—the darkness, even hopelessness, of their lives—conveys deeply. The film leaves us pondering how a societal morass with ingrained sexual contradictions and hypocrisies can ever change? No answers are given as none exist at this time, but showing the condition through Tehran Taboo is an important step forward.