Tehran Taboo’s Rotoscope tales of Iranian life help unpalatable reality cut through

Like Waltz with Bashir, the film repackages the familiar in a way that overcomes compassion fatigue.

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It’s been some time since animation was synonymous exclusively with children’s entertainment. Ribald comedies such as Ralph Bakshi’s Fritz the Cat and Heavy Traffic did their bit in the 1970s to chip away at those preconceptions but they also exploited the naughty thrill of rendering adults-only material in a medium associated with childhood, when such sights are usually out of bounds. (More recently, the makers of Sausage Party generated the same frisson.) But decisive advances for the art form have more commonly been effected by the simple process of good, complex, serious animation being made: Watership Down and The Plague Dogs, When the Wind Blows and Grave of the Fireflies, Paprika and Chico & Rita

Rotoscoping — whereby live-action footage is traced and painted over by animators — has provided arguably the most effective bridge for animation into the adult world. Most of us will have first encountered the technique in parts of the 1978 version of Lord of the Rings, directed by Bakshi, where it rather eclipsed the rest of the film’s traditional cel animation. But it experienced something of a resurgence in the early part of this century thanks to Richard Linklater’s philosophical fantasy Waking Life and his unsettling adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly, as well as Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir, which raked over Folman’s traumatic buried memories of serving in the Israeli army in the early 1980s. 

Anyone who thought the Rotoscoping craze had burned itself out should take a look at Tehran Taboo, a new picture by the German-Iranian director Ali Soozandeh, which uses the technique much as Waltz with Bashir did: to introduce distance into material that might be unbearable, or impossible to stage, if shot in straightforward live-action. Take the scene in Tehran Taboo where a prostitute driving along with her john hands his payment to her ten-year-old son sitting on the backseat, then begins pleasuring the man while the child gazes out of the window at the passing traffic. The stylised patina of animation makes a scene such as this not palatable exactly but more watchable than it may otherwise have been. Perhaps it’s because the aesthetic is intimately related to our own world without representing it exactly (like the stop-motion in Anomalisa). Or perhaps it’s easier to persuade ourselves that the child and the adults aren’t really occupying the same physical space when there is an obvious element of technical interference (that is, the Rotoscoping) present in the scene anyway. 

Like Waltz with Bashir, Tehran Taboo also uses animation to heighten the strangeness that passes for normality, that becomes positively humdrum, in hostile environments. From the opening scene in which we hear snippets of different radio stations — one minute it’s a burger advertisement, the next someone is proclaiming that Almighty God made the nose of a woman expressly so it would suit the wearing of the chador — it’s clear that this is a city and a culture of jarring contradictions and endlessly churning anguish. A woman is unable to find a school for her son or to get a divorce from the drug-addicted husband who is currently languishing in jail unless she secures the consent of that same junkie spouse. A different woman, set to be married within days, has sex with a musician at a club, and then requires an operation that will “restore” her virginity; the musician, for his part, goes the extra mile in attempting to secure for her an artificial hymen. 

The subjects the film deals with are serious ones—prostitution, trafficking, religious oppression and hypocrisy, the abuse of humans and animals alike. But the lyrical animation, and especially an expressive use of shadows which illuminates emotion in the actors’ faces, makes it all appear to be unfolding in a woozy dream; the events seem fuzzy and half-remembered, and not quite happening in the present. It is full of unsettling imagery and ingenious match-cuts, including one that transports us seamlessly from a trio of bodies dangling from posts in the street after a public hanging to three figures on a rock’n’roll poster on a bedroom wall.

Tehran Taboo is closer to Waltz with Bashir in essence than it is to Linklater’s Rotoscope movies. In an age in which images of war and suffering compete hourly for our attention, these two films use animation to repackage the familiar, to break through any fatigue, compassion-related or otherwise, that audiences may feel. The backgrounds aspire to a photorealistic bluntness, while the human figures, even at their most authentic, are always slightly divorced from their surroundings by the artistry of the animator’s pen. It may take time but the reality sinks in eventually, and we may hear in our heads those horrified words from Rosemary’s Baby: “This isn’t a dream. This is really happening!”

Tehran Taboo is out now.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.