Unveiled women conquer the silver screen

Still from the film "My Favourite Cake" with Lily Farhadpour, Esmail Mehrabi
Lily Farhadpour experiences a surprising evening with a former army officer (Esmail Mehrabi) as Mahin in the film "My Favourite Cake" (source: Polyfilm)

More and more Iranian films are breaking taboos – the results are being met with amazement both in and outside Iran. "My Favourite Cake", which premiered at the Berlinale in February, is just the latest example

By Nasrin Bassiri

The main character of "Keyke mahboobe man" (My Favourite Cake), Mahin (Lily Farhadpour), is a plump, good-looking widow. Her husband, an officer in the army, has been dead for twenty years and Mahin now lives alone in a respectable ground floor flat with a terrace and a little garden. Mahin appears without a headscarf in the film's indoor scenes, despite this on-screen practice being illegal in Iran

Mahin ages and grows lonely. Her only daughter lives abroad; in the past, she would visit her daughter and grandchildren in Europe every few years, but in recent years it has been far harder to get a visa. 

Mahin used to be close to her friends in Tehran. She would often meet them for dinner, where they would cook together, laughing and sharing stories, but they are all much older now. The journey between their houses seems longer somehow, their footsteps fewer and heavier. Where they used to meet every week, they now only see one another once a year. When they do, there is still always plenty of laughter as they talk about the good things in life. But they also complain about incontinence, pain, and suffering. 

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On one such occasion, one of Mahin's friends asks, "Why don't you try meeting a new man? Your husband has been in his grave for twenty years, your daughter lives abroad. You ought to try and find yourself a new life partner!" Mahin is a fun-loving woman and she longs for love and attention. She's not interested in just tending the plants in her garden for the rest of her life. Her husband provided for her well. She is healthy, free of angst, and strong-willed; her life is not over yet. 

While out fetching bread, Mahin sees a security offer who has just arrested a young woman and is trying to drag her into a police car. He claims her headscarf was too loosely tied. Mahin gets between the pair, and the police offer yells, "I know what you're up to, you want to film us and show the footage to people abroad!" Ultimately, he lets the girl go. 

Searching for love and tenderness

Mahin goes looking for a man who suits her, and finds love in a restaurant. As the wife of a late officer, she sometimes receives vouchers for a restaurant for members of the army, but she doesn't usually use them because she can never find anyone to go with her. On this occasion, she summons the courage to go to the restaurant alone. 

At the restaurant, she hears a group of men chatting. One of them is an ex-officer (Esmail Mehrabi) who was wounded in combat. He grew sick of having to kill or be killed and eventually quit the army. 

He has been running a private taxi company since quitting the army and he lives alone. Mahin talks to him and asks him to give her a taxi ride home. She brings him to her flat and opens a bottle of home-made wine which is several years old. They listen to music, drink, dance, and take a shower. The man goes for a lie down and she bakes him her favourite cake. The evening ends with a big surprise. 

Immer mehr Frauen im Iran leisten Widerstand und gehen beispielsweise ohne Kopftuch auf die Straße.
Ever since the death of Iranian Kurdish woman Jina Mahsa Amini on 16 September 2022 and the subsequent protests, more and more women have been taking to the streets of Iran without the mandatory headscarf (image: Arne Bänsch/dpa/picture alliance)

Breaking every taboo

Co-written and directed by Maryam Modhadam and Behtash Sanaeeha, "Keyke mahboobe man" has been well received by press and public alike. It is a life-affirming romance. Yet some features of the film will slip past a European audience. It breaks countless taboos, both big and small. In Iranian cinema, 'older' women – i.e. women over 50, or 60 – are typically presented as mothers or grandmothers and are primarily focussed on the well-being of others, usually younger or older men. 

Older women do not on any account display a need for love and affection. One taboo-breaking scene sees wine being drunk on screen, and another sees the pair dancing together and touching each other. 

No unveiled women have been seen on screen in Iran since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. For almost half a century, 'reality' on screen in the Islamic Republic sees women wearing wide, ankle-length dresses at home, or trousers and coats and even going to bed with their headscarves on. They do not breastfeed their children and when their sons come home after many years away at war, they walk over to them and observe them from a safe distance, without touching them. 

If a woman faints at home in a film, the first thing her husband will do is run out of the flat to fetch a neighbour to help his unconscious wife. An on-screen husband never hits his wife with his hand, he uses a stick or an umbrella, so he doesn't have to touch her. A police officer trying to arrest a woman can only touch her coat or pull her sleeve.

But this only happens on screen; reality looks very different. At street protests and in prisons, women have been sexually assaulted and even raped.

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Resisting compulsory hijab

The breaking of taboos in "Keyke mahboobe man" cannot simply be put down to the courage of its directors and its actors. Filming began long before the emergence of the 'Woman, Life, Freedom' protest movement. Its brave tackling of taboos is due in part to the young people who have, time and again in recent years, had the courage to resist against misogynistic laws and regulations in Iran.  

Maryam Moghadam and Behtash Sanaeeha have spoken out about the fact that security officers seized all their equipment, including the film footage, during the post-production and editing process. The directors hoped to travel to Paris – where their production company is based – to oversee editing of copies of the footage. Their application to leave the country was, however, denied and a huge effort was required for them to complete work on the film remotely with the help of their producers in Paris. 

The film premiered at the 74th Berlinale in February 2024, but Maryam Moghadam and Behtash Sanaeeha were not permitted to travel to Berlin to participate in the film festival. In their message to the Berlinale, read by their main actor Lily Farhadpour, they shared how sad they were to be unable to celebrate with the public the birth of their shared child on the big screen. They dedicated their film to the courageous women of Iran.

Nasrin Bassiri

© Iran Journal 2024

My Favourite Cake (Keyke mahboobe man) with Maryam Moghaddam, Behtash Sanaeeha | Ireland, France, Sweden, Germany 2024 | 97 min, with Lily Farhadpour, Esmail Mehrabi. In cinemas 11/7/2024