Challenging Taboos: An interview with filmmaker Ali Soozandeh

The lives of several strong-willed women and a young musician intersect in the bustling metropolis of Tehran, their stories revealing the hypocrisies of modern Iranian society, where sex, drugs, and corruption coexist with strict religious law.

Making use of rotoscope animation, expat Iranian filmmaker Ali Soozandeh creates a portrait of contemporary Tehran that would be impossible by any other means. Ian Haydn Smith talks to Soozandeh about his taboo-busting drama.


Ali Soozandeh’s Tehran Taboo presents a startling account of life in the Iranian capital, predominantly through the eyes and experiences of its female population. It’s an animated film, but made using the rotoscope process – by which live action footage has animation overlaid upon it. In this instance, Tehran is the location of all the action, even though the film wasn’t shot there. The result is a challenging film that highlights the need for change in the treatment of women in Iran.

  Tehran Taboo  (2018)

Tehran Taboo (2018)

What sparked the initial idea for the film?

I was born and raised in Iran. Every time I think about my past, I wonder why we had and already have many limitations in our society, especially sexual limitations. And how they change our lives and shape our character. Writing the script was perhaps a need or an attempt to find answers to these questions.

  Tehran Taboo  (2018)

Tehran Taboo (2018)

The approach to sexuality is franker than has been previously portrayed in films looking at women living in Iran. Can you talk about the choice to give the women the roles/narratives that you have?

I think both men and women suffer from sexual restrictions. But women are the ones who suffer more. From one side there are legal restrictions, e.g. they are not allowed to come out without a headscarf. On the other hand, they are limited by society. Honour is very important in Iranian society. A woman can put it in danger with an extramarital sexual relationship.

  Tehran Taboo  (2018)

Tehran Taboo (2018)

Did shooting in Rotoscope give you a freedom that you feel you wouldn't otherwise have with a live-action film?

Well, animation was one way to avoid censorship. But I think that animation gives us the opportunity to talk about the problems with a distance that we don't have in life action. Since the images are not as concrete as a life action, they create a bigger space in the minds of the audience for self-imagination.

  Tehran Taboo  (2018)

Tehran Taboo (2018)

Was it difficult to create this world – one that feels more real than conventional hand-drawn or computer-generated animation?

We realised that a hand-drawn or computer-generated world doesn't work with rotoscoped characters. The looks and movements of the characters are very real. So, we also needed a world that would fit and the technique we used was a combination of hand drawing and computer graphics. For that, we need artists from both areas. We painted the various elements of the environment and placed them into a 3D environment. The workflow is more complicated than a pure 3D or hand-drawn animation.

  Tehran Taboo  (2018)

Tehran Taboo (2018)

An important aspect of the film, which has been the concern of many directors working in or detailing oppressive societies is that everyday life and politics are not separate topics. Everyday life becomes political. A problem you engage with is that this is beyond the law – it is a mind-set that needs to be changed. But it feels like an insurmountable obstacle. At the same time, that very mindset is guilty of the worst hypocrisy. 

I think a system consists of several parts that influence each other. Politics, religion, tradition, education, mindset etc. For example, the first scene of the movie: The driver with the prostitute in the car sees his daughter holding hands with a young man. There are no police, but the man and his attitude are the biggest limitation for his daughter. I think the only solution to these problems is education. We have a higher level of education in some parts of the big cities, but in other parts and in the countryside the level of education is lower. I think it is the job of artists, social scientists, teachers and philosophers... to change this mind-set.

  Tehran Taboo  (2018)

Tehran Taboo (2018)

Has there been any official Iranian response to the film? Or from the Iranian Diaspora?

No. I get a lot of positive feedback from Iranians living in Iran. The feedback from Iranians living outside Iran is rather negative. They are usually angry with the film. Because the film damages the image we present of ourselves to the West.

  Tehran Taboo  (2018)

Tehran Taboo (2018)

There is clearly a sizeable group in Iran that is looking towards change and reform. However, like many countries, external circumstances – in both the regional and global political situation – can have a negative effect. Are you hopeful that this change will eventually emerge?

I am very hopeful and think that the Iranian people can change society. The regional and global situation changes every day. But if we can reach the higher level of education, we can build a society that has strong roots and is stable enough to withstand any regional and global situation.

Tehran Taboo opens on Friday 5 October

[Words by Ian Haydn Smith]


In this gorgeously animated drama, the lives of several strong-willed women and a young musician intersect, their stories revealing the hypocrisies of modern Iranian society, where sex, drugs, and corruption coexist with strict religious law.

In the bustling metropolis of Tehran, avoiding prohibitions has become an everyday sport and breaking taboos can be a means of personal emancipation. Nevertheless, women invariably end up on the bottom rung of the social order. A young woman needs an operation to 'restore' her virginity. A judge in the Islamic Revolutionary Court exhorts favors from a prostitute in exchange for a favorable judgement. The wife of an imprisoned drug addict is denied the divorce she needs in order to live independently.

Making use of rotoscope animation, expat Iranian filmmaker Ali Soozandeh creates a portrait of contemporary Tehran that would be impossible by any other means.