Cannes Hidden Gem: 'Tehran Taboo' Takes Animated Look at Iran

Tehran Taboo - Cannes Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

Ali Soozandeh's daring directorial debut — the first-ever animated film in the Critics' Week lineup — chronicles life in the country's capital, where sex and drugs are open secrets.

It started during a subway ride in Cologne.

"I overheard two guys talking, Iranians, like me," recalls Ali Soozandeh, a filmmaker who came to Germany as a 25-year-old immigrant in 1985. "They were talking about their sex lives back home. One mentioned a prostitute turning tricks on the streets of Tehran with her child beside her. That got me thinking, and I started writing."

The result was the script to Tehran Taboo, Soozandeh's directorial debut. It's the story of three women and one man living in modern-day Tehran, a schizophrenic society where, despite strict and oppressive theocratic rule, sex, adultery, drugs and prostitution are open secrets. "I wanted to look at these ‘taboos,' these taboos all of us Iranians carry in us," says Soozandeh. "Everyone sees these taboos but no one talks about them. There is a huge silence at the center of the society that no one breaks. That was the big question I wanted to ask: Why do we all play along?"

Instead of trying to fake the streets of the Iranian capital in a studio in Cologne — "People try to copy Iran in Morocco or whatever, but it never works" — Soozandeh, who trained as an animator and worked on the animated documentary The Green Wave, about Iran's 2010 Green Revolution, chose instead to re-create his home city via computer. Combining rotoscoping and motion capture of actors filmed against a greenscreen with hand-drawn and computer-generated animation, he turned Tehran Taboo into a living graphic novel.

"The real challenge was to make an animated film on a debut film budget [of just $2 million]," says producer Ali Samadi Ahadi, who directed The Green Wave. "There was no blueprint for this; we had to develop all the tools ourselves."

Tehran Taboo, which Celluloid Dreams is selling worldwide, will be the first animated film to screen in the Critics' Week sidebar. But the festival itself has a long tradition of celebrating art house animation, not least with competition titles such as Ari Folman's documentary Waltz With Bashir and Persepolis from Iranian graphic novelist-turned-director Marjane Satrapi.

Producer Ahadi believes animation is particularly appealing for immigrants telling stories "that occur far away or long ago," noting the work of Jews who fled the Nazis during World War II and "created this huge, dynamic community of comic book artists in America."

He adds, "By creating a sense of abstraction, it actually increases the emotional impact of the stories, much more than would be the case with a reenactment by actors in a studio."

Tehran Taboo premieres in the Critics' Week on May 20.