Protected from the Profanities of the Bellowing Fans

The Iranian film "Offside" is about a group of girl soccer fans who smuggle themselves into Tehran's Azadi Stadium, despite the ban on women spectators. Ariana Mirza presents Offside and its director Jafar Panahi

​​She is pretty. Neither a baseball cap nor war paint is enough to disguise her. She has hardly made it into the stadium before being discovered. In an improvised detention room, half a dozen girls are waiting to be transported by the vice squad. These young Iranian women refuse to bow to the absurd ban on female spectators at stadiums.

In Offside, Jafar Panahi tells the conciliatory tale of a brave young woman and a good-natured soldier. The comedy with a double happy end takes place in 2005 during the Soccer World Cup qualification round between Bahrain and Iran.

Although the whole country can be seen united in its hope for victory, women are still not permitted to attend the games. And what is the justification for this discriminatory ban? No one has a convincing answer. Not even the recruits from the provinces, who have been assigned to guard the girls.

Outmatched by their captive adversaries

Jafar Panahi allows his heroines to express themselves in their own words. The film's framework was delineated from the start, but the girls' outrage is real and they all have their own arguments against the ban. "This is absolute nonsense. We are allowed to go to the movies and even sit next to men – in the dark!"

Jafar Panahi (photo: &copy Berlinale)
Jafar Panahi's uncritical criticism: The societal circumstances are demasked as preposterous, but no one is explicitly blamed

​​One of the guards shyly responds that women must be protected from the profanities of the bellowing fans, only to get an earful of profanity from one of the detainees, a self-conscious girl from the capital.

His choice of male protagonists also shows Jafar Panahi has a good sense for character. The young amateur performers convincingly convey an attitude towards life that highlights their yearning for the peace and quiet back home on the farm. The young soldiers from the provinces prove to be awkward and reluctant guards of the quick-witted girls from the capital. The naïve country boys are outmatched by their captive adversaries, and not only in their knowledge of soccer.

Offside is a comedy filmed in a neo-realist style. The realistic genre of production has a tradition in Iran going back to the pioneering film work of Abbas Kiarostami. The 45-year-old Jafar Panahi acquired his first feature film experience as assistant director to Kiarostami. The quiet, yet penetrating narrative style of the old master can be observed in all of Panahi's previous films.

In an interview with the press, Panahi made clear just how dependant the development of the film was on real events. "If Iran had lost against Bahrain, I wouldn't have shot the film to the end." That is because the overflowing joy after the winning qualification game was absolutely necessary for the plot. Only the subsequent general delirium on the streets of Tehran makes the happy end of the story plausible.

Laurels abroad

Jafar Panahi's last film, Talaye Sorkh (Crimson Gold), made in 2003, was not allowed to be shown in Iran. The screenplay for Offside was credited to Shadmehr Rastin, a colleague of Panahi unknown to the censorship authorities. Panahi didn't want to endanger approval for shooting. Now, after the film's success at the Berlinale, the director hopes that Offside will also be seen by the Iranian public.

Panahi declared in Berlin, however, that if the censors mar his film with cuts, he would prefer not to screen the film in his home country.

Offside repeatedly makes clear to the viewer just how important Iran is for Panahi. When, at the end of the film, the Iranian anthem "Oh land of jewels, your soil is the wellspring of the arts" strikes up, remarkably enough, the patriotic emotionalism doesn't seem naïve and artificial, but rather comes across as a solemn declaration of love.

One can only hope that the Iranian censorship authorities judge the patriotic tone of the film as an important point in its favor. This subtle comedy and its unmistakable plea for women's rights should have the chance to be seen in Iran.

Ariana Mirza

© 2006

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

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