The Iranian Film That Breaks the Taboo on Sexuality

Ali Soozandeh’s animated work ‘Tehran Taboo,’ now debuting in the United States, harshly criticizes the oppression of women in the Islamic Republic and the hypocrisy that pervades society

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Go to comments
A shot from 'Tehran Taboo.' Lambastes the oppression of women in Iran and the hypocrisy that pervades society.
A shot from 'Tehran Taboo.' Lambastes the oppression of women in Iran and the hypocrisy that pervades society.Credit: Camino Filmverleih / ARP Select
Shira Makin
Shira Makin
Shira Makin
Shira Makin

Three young women and a young man from Iran embark on a journey of sexual freedom and happiness in their search for creative ways to overcome the restrictions of conservative Islamic society. Their journey, as described in the animated film “Tehran Taboo” which debuts in the United States on Wednesday, provides a rare glimpse into Iran's urban subculture.

A shot from the 2017 film 'Tehran Taboo.'
A shot from the 2017 film 'Tehran Taboo.'Credit: Camino Filmverleih / ARP Select

The film lambastes not only the oppression of women in Iran but also the hypocrisy that pervades its society. It includes harsh scenes of public executions, sexual violence, animal abuse and suicide.

Its director, Ali Soozandeh, has already told interviewers that because of the film, his debut, he probably won’t be allowed to return to his country. He explained that he decided to use rotoscopic animation (real actors are filmed and later recreated via computer animation) after the Iranian censorship laws prevented him from filming in Tehran. 

“Tehran Taboo” centers around the attempts of three women to navigate the many religious prohibitions and social expectations. Pari is a prostitute taking care of her mute son and trying to divorce her husband, who is in prison. Sara, her neighbor, is pregnant after two miscarriages and is looking for work despite her husband’s objections. Donya is trying to raise money for an operation to “restore her virginity” in the run-up to her marriage, after fooling around with a man she met in a club. And Donya’s lover Babak, a young musician, is trying to raise the money for her operation.

The film was shown last May at Cannes and won for best international first feature at the Jerusalem Film Festival. According to the jury, “Tehran Taboo” brings us into a corrupt and unequal society through the eyes of marginal figures, but does not judge them.

In The Daily Beast, the critic complimented the film’s displaying of the double standards of the country’s political and religious oppression. For example, the movie opens with Pari agreeing to have sex with a taxi driver while her son is sitting in the back seat. While she is performing oral sex on him he sees his daughter walking down the street holding a man’s hand – and immediately is so overcome by fury that he crashes his taxi.

In another scene, Pari tries to convince a judge in an Islamic Revolutionary Court to sign her divorce papers – and he agrees on condition that she becomes his mistress.

The film was produced in Germany and Austria, and Soozandeh told The Dot and Line that the city “has its own look: the buildings, people, cars, clothes. It’s so special. You cannot fake it. So that is why we used animation.”

Soozandeh left Iran in 1995 and has been living in Germany ever since. He told The Huffington Post that he always asked himself “why is sexuality such a big taboo in Iran?” adding that he got the idea for the script after hearing a conversation between two young men on a train in Tehran about problems with relationships with Iranian women.

A shot from 'Tehran Taboo.'
A shot from 'Tehran Taboo.' Credit: Camino Filmverleih / ARP Select

“One story was about a prostitute who was working with her child coming along which is what kind of kicked it off,” he said.

Soozandeh said his real ambition is to spur a cultural change in his homeland; he says the contradictory taboos in Iranian society proliferate in the absence of both the will and ability to discuss them in public.

“Film can’t give any answers but it can make the audience think,” he told The Huffington Post. “And that’s a start that will eventually help to change the society.”