Tehran Taboo opens with a man picking up a prostitute, Pari (Elmira Rafizadeh), and her son, Elias, in his car. While Pari is giving her client a blowjob (with Elias in the backseat), he crashes his car into the vehicle in front of him because he caught his daughter holding hands with a man on the street. That sexual hypocrisy is like a plague that affects everybody, whether they be man or woman, in this film. It’s impossible to distance themselves from it because of how much it’s entwined in their culture. This is especially so for the women. Pari is a single mother whose drug-addicted husband is in prison. She desperately wants a divorce but is unable to get one due to the strict laws. Her only option is to exchange sexual favors with the judge responsible for crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s.
The judge lets Pari and Elias stay in his spare apartment for the time being. Staying in the apartment below them is Sara (Zahra Amir Ebrahimi), a shy woman who must take care of her ailing in-laws while preparing for a baby after two miscarriages. She desperately wants a job, but her working husband, Monsen, won’t allow it. She and Pari strike up an unlikely friendship, laughing and crying about this oppressed world they live in. Pari is able to lie about her occupation successfully, but her more progressive lifestyle influences Sara and causes her marriage to get rocky. To make matters even worse, one of Pari’s customers turns out to be Monsen himself, making for an awkward and shameful encounter.
In the same building is Babak (Arash Marandi), a struggling musician who can barely get a gig in a nightclub. After having a quickie in the bathroom with a woman named Donya (Negar Mona Alizadeh), he learns that it was her first time having sex and now has to pay for a hymen operation before she gets married. It’s such a ridiculous plotline that one might think that would never happen, but they’d be surprised.
Director Ali Soozandeh’s decision to turn to animation is a fascinating one. He would not have been able to make this film in Iran (Soozandeh has lived in Germany since 1995) and filming this film in Jordan or Morocco would not have sufficed. Tehran has its own unique look and architecture that no other town could mimic. So, he utilized the rotoscoping technique, which allows animators to trace over motion picture footage to allow realistic action. And thankfully, we have strong women driving his story. Pari, Sara, and Donya are stuck under a patriarchal and religious society, but that doesn’t necessarily stop them. They know what they want, and they don’t let the “threat of the morality police” stop. Donya is determined to get a new hymen before her fiancé finds out, and Sara will find a job one way or another. Soozandeh’s storytelling is very engaging and nuanced and isn’t just women pitted against the evil men of society. Everyone has their flaws, and we are pulled into the complexities of their storylines. The law may tell them that they need men, but these strong-willed characters are proof that that is not the case.
Tehran Taboo’s portrayal of the capital city is a little outdated. It makes sense because Soozandeh hasn’t lived in Iran since the 90’s, an era where sexism was harsher. While women still aren’t treated equal, they can now work, go to university, and even work in politics. As far as sexual taboos go, most Iranian women have sexual experiences before they get married. They just never talk about it.
Tehran Taboo is a fascinating glimpse into how Iran’s patriarchal and religious society affects men and women. To find freedom and happiness, they must break from the Islamic oppression they’ve been raised in. For a man like Babak, that might be easy. For women like Pari, Sara, and Donya, it’s almost unheard of.