TDF Interview Tehran Taboo Director Ali Soozandeh

Ali Soozandeh is the writer and director of Tehran Taboo, a powerful new film which lifts the lid on the Iranian capital’s dark underbelly of sex and corruption. Using rotoscope animation – similar to A Scanner Darkly and Loving Vincent – it tells three interlinked stories and deals with prostitution, abortion and sex trafficking, each tale painting a bleak picture, particularly of the choices facing Iranian women. It is lacerating, uncompromising stuff.

Born in Iran, 48-year-old Soozandeh left the country in his twenties and has lived in Germany ever since. His debut feature might crackle with anger and a palpable sense of injustice but, when I meet the director in London just days before Tehran Taboo’s UK cinema release, he is reserved, thoughtful, softly spoken and during our interview smiles only once – when I ask him if it feels strange being in Britain, a country at least partly responsible for Iran’s ills, both current and historic.

Were you already an animator when you left Iran?
I was 24 when I left but my passion for animation came later. I used to paint a lot, draw a lot, write, take photographs – animation is a combination of all this. In Germany, I started to study film and media design, and made my first short animated film as a student. It is a good method to express yourself and, if you can draw, it’s something you can do on your own without needing a big team of people.

Has it been a long journey from that point to now, where you have your first film out as director?
Yes, a long journey. In Germany, I made more short films and became a camera operator and VFX artist. Visual effects were “next door” to animation and I started to explore telling a story that combined them with live action and animation. I made a film called The Green Wave in 2009 [Ali was art director] about the protests in Iran [following the controversial re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president] that also used rotoscope.

Is there a difference between the way you use rotoscoping in Tehran Taboo and a film like A Scanner Darkly?
Yes, there are different kinds of rotoscoping techniques – A Scanner Darkly is fully shot in live action and then transferred into animation but in Tehran Taboo we shot the characters in front of a green screen, so we didn’t have any backgrounds. They were entirely created in CGI after the filming had taken place.

Not that you would have been allowed to film in Tehran anyway…
No, exactly.

Were you worried about inviting comparisons with Persepolis?
No, it was helpful. When you start trying to find finance for your project, people who you want to fund you will ask for examples of other films like yours that have worked. I could point them in the direction of A Scanner Darkly and Persepolis. But Persepolis is a very different film to Tehran Taboo and uses a very different technique.

Your film is very bleak – what specifically inspired its dark mood?
I was born and grew up in Iran and it was time for me to think to my past. I found some big questions in my head about the restrictions – sexual and otherwise – in the society. And you ask yourself, “How did these restrictions change your character and change your life?” One day I heard a conversation between two Iranian men in Germany. They talked about life in Iran and a prostitute who had taken her son along to her job. That and other stories in the film are things I have seen, experienced and heard. I talk about life in Iran with many other Iranians – students, businesspeople, refugees – and I have also read books written by Iranians. So, it’s a combination of all this experience.

Have you had any “feedback” from the Iranian authorities about the film?
There has been no official reaction from Iran – no “reviews”. I have had feedback only from private persons there, who would have been able to buy the film on the black market. People inside Iran like the film but Iranian people outside Iran have given me negative reactions, which is interesting to me. I think they like to present a very positive image of the country to the rest of the world, so seeing a film that highlights double standards and corruption is not a pleasure for them.

Do you feel Iran is singled out for criticism by the UK? We’re happy to do business with countries every bit as bad…
I think the image we have in the West of other countries is very black and white. When I talk about Iran, the image other people have is either atom bombs and restrictive mullahs or 1001 Nights stories. If you want to understand another society you have to read between the lines – that’s why I needed to tell a story about everyday life.

Tehran Taboo is in UK cinemas from 5 October

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