Tehran Taboo: The Taboo of Speaking about Tehran in Toronto

The drama surrounding Tehran Taboo started for me even before it was screened in the International Diaspora Film Festival (IDFF) in Toronto on Thursday.

A few weeks ago, I took a trip to Montreal, in order to let my brain ease off some of the stress that it had endured recently due to work and other engagements. There, while drinking great wine on my friend’s balcony, in the presence of old friends and newly found friends, all of whom were Iranian, I heard of a film named Tehran Taboo that had stirred some controversy. Some individuals in the audience had watched the film before and were, albeit cautiously, referring to it as a “must-see film”.

The trip concluded with a last minute visit to the SAQ, in order to obtain multiple bottles of a rare, yet not overly priced, $18-a-bottle California wine that LCBO does not carry and I practically forgot Tehran Taboo until I purchased the pass to IDFF and noticed that the first film on the row is Tehran Taboo.

On Thursday, a small group of us convened at the amazingly old-smelling Carlton cinema on Carlton street in Toronto. The cinema has become, in recent years, a meeting place for the section of the Iranian diaspora in Toronto that is interested in Iranian affairs. For one, IDFF has been held in that cinema in the past few years. Additionally, the same group of people gathers up, as if driven by an inaudible, yet bold, call, every first Wednesday of the month, in order to watch the latest installment of the Docunight series. On this particular night, however, we had a special guest, and I assume that her presence, at a symbolic level, manifested a big portion of “what is wrong” with Tehran Taboo.

At seven thirty we were seated in the small theater. To my right was a long-term Iranian friend, who has gone through rounds of immigration and diasporic experiences. A new arrival in Canada, he has endured the many gates, and holding centers, that taking refuge in Europe involves passing through and staying in. To my left, however, sat a person who had experienced Iran only a few weeks before. This individual, having been born into a non-Iranian family in the prairies, had, most probably, the weakest connecting bonds with Iran, and yet, she had spent two weeks touring Iran and visiting a few Bazaars and a Zoorkhaneh, where she was wondering if one should clap to the rhythm of the “music”. Further to my left, and in front of me, and behind me, were the members of the Iranian diaspora in Toronto.

No one was expecting this film, and very much so this festival, to be a fun-ride in some imaginary version of Iran in which “everything is calm, and I wonder why so lucky I am”, as a cheesy Persian pop song suggests. Nevertheless, when the film ended, one could clearly hear the grumbles coming from around the cinema. To my right, my great friend, who is most critical of not only the Iranian political establishment, but also the Iranian culture and psyche, was turning around in fury in his seat. “This is nonsense, a compilation of everything that is wrong with that society, condensed to the extreme, and beyond, so that the director can sell tickets.”

As we stepped out of the cinema and into the main lobby, groups of Iranians had gathered in circles, and you could hear, and even notice from the postures, that the film had divided people into two camps. The majority had found at least one thing that was totally wrong with the film, assuming that they did not call it the most irrelevant rubbish, as I heard one person say. One friend compared the film to the 1991 torments of Betty Mahmoody and her eventual escape from Iran in Not Without My Daughter. Another compared it to Zack Snyder’s 300. Both films are regarded as anti-Iran cheap propaganda in many Iranian circles.

A few nights later, at a great friend’s party, the seismic waves that Tehran Taboo had created were still evident. In between chatting and drinking wine and devouring exquisite Persian dishes, we found time to discuss the film, and the general opinion was that the film is rubbish, although rubbish that is worth spending and hour and half on.

Whether or not many of the members of the audience liked the film, or even if they hated it all the way through, Tehran Taboo is an opportunity for the diasporic community to go through a journey of self-reflection. That’s why we seized the moment and scheduled an event, in a local bar in Tehranto, to discuss the film. “The unlikeable Tehran Taboo”, as it is called, is scheduled for the Thursday after the next, and going through the list of participants on the Facebook page of the event, one can guarantee that the discussion will be lively and multi-faceted.

This post will have a sequel.

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