Offside. Starring Sima Mobarak-Shahi, Shaesteh Irani, Ayda Sadeqi, Golnaz Farmani, Mahnaz Zabihi, Nazanin Sediq-zadeh, Melika Shafahi, Safdar Samandar, Mohammad Kheir-abadi, Masoud Kheymeh-kabood, Mohammed-Reza Gharebaghi, Hadi Saeedi, Masoud Gheyas-vand, Ali Baradari, and Ali Roshan. Music by Yuval Barazani and Korosh Bozorgpour. Cinematography by Rami Agami and Mahmoud Kalari. Production design by Iraj Raminfar. Screenplay by Jafar Panahi and Shadmehr Rastin. Edited and directed by Jafar Panahi.
(Sony Pictures Classics/Jafar Panahi Film Productions, 2007, color, 93 minutes, in Persian/Farsi with subtitles. MPAA rating: PG.)
May 2008 -- “Men and women are different,” says a frustrated soldier to a young girl who’s been questioning his authority in Jafar Panahi’s lighthearted journey into fear, Offside.
Well, yeah. It’s why men are into Dodge Challengers painted Hemi Orange while women are enrolled in Oprah’s Book Club. The last time I attended a Redskins game, at Philadelphia’s now-demolished Veterans Stadium, I went with a young lady who just happened to be an Eagles fan. And, although you might call her a tomboy (she does), when she was finished swilling her Yuengling beer, she had to use the ladies’ room. Because, after all, men and women are different.
In Tehran’s Azadi Stadium, however, there are no women’s restrooms. That’s because no women are admitted anywhere in the stadium; only men are permitted to attend the sporting events. Because of the repressive separation of the sexes in the Islamic Republic of Iran, women wind up paying the price for men’s rude behavior and lechery.
The inspiration for this film, shot in “real time” documentary style, first germinated in director Panahi’s mind a few years before it was shot, when he had an assignment to cover a soccer game. His preteen daughter begged to tag along, but he told her she wasn’t permitted. Because he couldn’t miss the game, he informed her that should she be turned away at the gate, she’d have to return home alone. Though Panahi was unsuccessful at getting her in, she later told him that she managed to slip through. When he asked how, she replied slyly, “There is always a way.”
This movie’s plot is rather simple: Adolescent girls disguise themselves (with varying degrees of success) as boys, in hopes of watching the Iranian national soccer team face off against Bahrain in a qualifying match that will send the winner to the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Although some gatecrashers slip by undetected, a half-dozen are caught by army soldiers and detained.
Throughout this cinematic slice of life, when the girls are caught sneaking in, they are lectured by men that they shouldn’t be around the male soccer fans, who might be acting loutish and shouting profanities, which could deflower the girls’ virginal ears. One poorly disguised young fan (Sima Mobarak-Shahi)—whose features are far too soft and feminine to be taken for a boy—offers a souvenir dealer (Mohsen Tabandeh) 6,000 rials for a ticket. He retorts, aghast, “But you could be my sister!” When the girl offers him more, they strike a deal: Apparently, the going rate for the honor of the ticket scalper’s sister would be 8,000 rials.
Almost immediately she is apprehended by a soldier, who leads her over to a makeshift holding pen outside the stadium’s walls. There she is held with five other girls. As they sit, stand, pace, and gripe behind the fence barricades, they cajole the soldiers to let them go, to no avail.
But not necessarily because their guards are unsympathetic to their plight. The movie’s paradox is that while the girls long to be on the inside, the soldiers would all rather be elsewhere. These captors are also captives, by way of conscription. Their dedication to duty comes not from love of country, but from the dread that their enlistments might be involuntarily extended should one of the girls slip from their grasp. One troop even gives a play-by-play rundown to the girls through an opening in the stadium’s wall while he watches the action on the field. Panahi lets the viewer revel in the game from the same point-of-view as the girls’, by proxy.
Panahi’s portrayal of fundamentalist Islam’s oppression of its women is hardly oppressive; rather, he depicts their plight as a bureaucratic nightmare. Everyday life is absurdist theatre in today’s Iran, where women cheer on their national soccer heroes at a game they cannot see. For them, breaching the stadium’s walls is as vital as scaling the Berlin Wall was for East German dissidents a generation before. Ironically, though, these girls were brought here not by a spirit of rebellion against the Iranian regime, but out of patriotism, in hopes of witnessing their countrymen advance to the World Cup. Instead of land mines and electrified fences, they face stadium walls that have been thrown up by a dualistic philosophy that views women as simultaneously pure and yet the source of temptation. Its practical result is the hypocrisy that women are to blame for men’s uncontrollable lusts; thus, even the most commonplace, non-carnal pleasures cannot be shared with their male counterparts.
A particularly amusing scene involves a soldier (Safdar Samandar) faced with the quandary of having to escort his female prisoner (Ayda Sadeqi) to the men’s room to relieve herself. He cannot permit her entry because of her sex, so before she can enter, he rounds up the young men and herds them out of the restroom, causing a melee. As he shuttles her in, the guard orders her not to look at the graffiti spray-painted on the lavatory walls. “Can you read? These are things too dirty for women to read. Don’t read!”
Offside is a comical and joyous window into contemporary Iranian life. Its best quality is that Panahi avoids heavy-handed political lecturing, instead allowing the ludicrous situation to play itself out to make its points. His script is full of biting witticisms, especially from the tough-talking, chain-smoking soccer fan played by Shayesteh Irani, who feverishly debates the guards, tripping up their faulty reasoning for not permitting women to view the soccer match.
Panahi chose unknown actors to retain the film’s documentary feel. Shot on handheld video rather than film, Offside was made over a thirty-nine-day period, though many scenes were filmed during the actual game. This picture has an authentic atmosphere, mostly thanks to its street-smart dialogue, actual locations, and unobtrusive camerawork and editing. Despite uneven performances by some of the clearly amateur actors, its characters seemed much more natural and believable than those played by professional A-list thespians in Sofia Coppola’s stilted entry in the cinéma-vérité genre, Lost In Translation.
Though its dialogue is mostly apolitical, Offside was banned by Iran’s censors. And though it has become a best-selling DVD on the Iranian black market, the film has yet to be shown there on the big screen. While Hollywood producers are quaking in their designer footwear at the prospect of the revenge that might be wreaked on them were they to portray the evil of Islamofascism, this little movie from inside the “Axis of Evil” gives cause for more than just hope. In Offside, we get to see the face of evil up-close and personal. And these days, evil is looking pretty bored. It just wants its discharge papers.