Offside (2006)

Director: Jafar Panahi

By Marilyn Ferdinand

As many people in cinematic and Iranian circles know, noted Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi has been incarcerated by the Iranian government for nearly three months, where he has been tortured and, until a couple of days ago, denied an appearance before a judge and visits from his lawyer and family. The jury of the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, on which he was to sit, left a chair empty in symbolic protest and was one of the first bodies in the film community to protest his imprisonment. There can be no doubt that he was jailed to prevent a repeat of his highly visible protest of the repressions of the Iranian government at the 2009 Montreal Film Festival. The government started to bow to pressure when the world reacted to Panahi beginning a hunger strike to the death last week; he said in his letter announcing the hunger strike: “I will not tolerate turning into a lab rat, where every minute I am accused of the most insane crimes and where I am under constant mental and physical torture.” Another Iranian filmmaker, Mohammad Nourizad, has undergone similar treatment for an even longer period, and his sight has been damaged from the severe beatings he has endured.

These two men and every other Iranian filmmaker who wishes to make films in their own country must endure censorship and restrictions. None of Panahi’s films can be shown in Iran because he has filmed around the restrictions, and his defiance of government repression is what has placed him in his current predicament. Besides joining groups calling for his release, I decided to write about Panahi’s work that by posing questions by example, illuminates what sorts of “insane crimes” ordinary Iranians are being accused of these days and allows us to reflect on the customs and religious dogma that harm and oppress women not only in Iran, but also throughout the world.

The plan to make Offside came to Panahi when his daughter was refused admission to a soccer match. With Iran in contention to make the finals of the 2006 World Cup, Panahi took his chance and filmed clandestinely at Tehran’s Azadi stadium during the match between Bahrain and Iran to determine which national team would go to Germany to play for the championship. He chose nonprofessionals to portray the soccer-crazy girls who try to sneak into the stadium, the soldiers providing security, and the male fans.

We find ourselves inside a car in which an older man (Mohammed Moktar Azad) tells an unseen driver to catch up with a bus and block it from continuing. He gets out of the car, saying he won’t be long, and looks up and down the bus for his daughter, who has taken off to see the big game. The car he started out in takes off, and the bus driver lets him ride to the stadium so he can search for his daughter. “You know what they’ll do to her if they catch her.” That sounds ominous and makes us worry about a girl (Sima Mobarak-Shahi) on another bus whose disguise fools no one. A young man on the bus is sympathetic, as is the vendor who takes the risk of selling her a ticket, but overcharges her for it and forces her to buy one of his posters as well as a cover for their conversation. She watches another girl get in using her elderly father as a cover, and attempts to attach herself to some others going through the gate, but balks when a soldier goes to frisk her. She runs, but is apprehended and taken to a holding area, already occupied by several other girls and guarded by one soldier from a rural area near Tabriz (Mohammad Kheir-Habadi) who barks orders at them and another, a city boy from Tehran (Masoud Kheymeh-kabood), who can see the game and narrates it for them.

Between the play-by-play coverage, the arrival of another disguised girl, personal histories, and the screams of an angry father, a very interesting conversation takes place between the rural soldier and one of the more defiant and masculine girls (Shayesteh Irani). Clearly intimidated by his city setting and concerned about threats to his father’s farm, we see how the government works in the outreaches of Iran. The Tehrani girl openly smokes and has cut her hair. She learns that foreign women are allowed into the stadium, even though they will also be exposed to the coarse language and naked arms and legs of the men attending the game that are the excuses the soldiers give for the exclusion of Iranian women. They also will be sitting with strange men around them. “But they will be with their brothers and husbands,” the soldier shoots back, not considering that this could also be the case for the detained girls. “So, the only reason I can’t go in is because I’m Iranian,” the girl says, hitting the nail on the head. It’s all about government control, of course. As Panahi has said in an interview, there is no law saying women can’t attend soccer matches. It has become an unwritten law that through intimidation is becoming custom. As long as Iran remains under religious rule, laws will not matter and interpretation of religious law will be at the discretion of the few men who hold power.

Offside explores these deep issues the way reasonable people might, through conversations that could be taking place in coffee houses, dorm rooms, or dinner parties anywhere in the world. The film also takes some very well-aimed pokes at the absurdity of the situation at hand. One of the girls (Ayda Sadequi), a soccer player herself, has to use the rest room. Of course, there are no rest rooms for females, so the Tehrani soldier disguises her by taking the first girl’s poster of a soccer star and turning it into a mask—one the girl can’t see out of because the holes he cuts in it don’t line up with her eyes. The scene in the bathroom is hilarious, as the soldier tells the girl not to read the graffiti-speckled walls, pushes an ever-growing crowd of men wanting to relieve themselves away while she’s in the rest room, and overhears a strange conversation in one of the stalls that sends the soldier from door to door, listening and finally bursting into one stall, only to find an old man having his wheelchair adjusted by his grandson. The girl takes her chance to run away while the soldier is surrounded by men wanting to use the facilities, and as he looks through the stands for her, we get a glimpse of the soccer match. At this moment, it dawned on me that I felt as deprived as the girls at not being able to see the action on the field—an interesting bit of empathy Panahi slyly put in motion from the moment we reached the stadium.

Because the game was real, Panahi and his cast had two possible endings, for victory or defeat. Either, I’m sure, would have been great, but victory allows us to see the street demonstrations of a proud nation and the jubilant yells of the girls—all real soccer fans—as they are being hauled off to the Vice Squad along with a boy who was detained for his repeated use of fireworks at soccer matches. Beautifully, he lights a firecracker in the paddy wagon that the soldier missed during his search, and produces sparklers. When the soldiers are compelled to join the revelers in the street, the prisoners file off the bus holding the lit sparklers. This moving last scene offers Panahi’s hope that the Iranian people will eventually emerge victorious into the light. I’ll be lighting a candle of hope for him as well. l

JAFAR PANAHI is the group on Facebook that is providing information and updates on him and Mohammad Nourizad. BREAKING! Panahi is being released on bail!

  • Samuel Wilson spoke:
    23rd/05/2010 to 5:30 pm

    Offside is one of my favorite films of the decade. The setting and the political environment give it a handmade and epic quality at the same time. I’ve only seen two Panahi films, and Crimson Gold is also great. It’s too bad that Iranian governments haven’t appreciated the treasure they have in their film industry. The current government’s treatment of Panahi is an atrocity, but he’s just the tip of an iceberg of repression. Every political prisoner in that country should go free with him.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    23rd/05/2010 to 6:03 pm

    Samuel, of course, I agree. Iranian cinema is consistent superb. About Elly was one of my favorites of 2009. I hope that Panahi’s high profile will help throw some light on the others who are in dire circumstances as well. Unfortunately, it takes a celebrity to draw people’s attention to a larger problem.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    23rd/05/2010 to 7:35 pm

    The entire ordeal is an affrontery to civilized people worldwide, and as movie fans we are particularly incensed at the treatment being given this towering figure of world cinema, at the hands of an oppressive, totalitarian regime. One recalls the imprisonment of the Soviet master, Sergei Paradjanov on similar charges of self-expression, and in Iran, there was the hounding of the Farrokhzād family (the female of course, Farough, crafted the masterpiece THE HOUSE IS BLACK) which ended with the assassination of the famous brother, a poet.

    I’ve been following the Panahi affair closely the last few days, and again i want to commend you Marilyn for always making your creative decisions at Ferdy-on-Films with an eye on the international scene. I like OFFSIDE a lot (and CRIMSON GOLD) but I guess my favorite is THE CIRCLE.

    As always, terrific review and commentary here.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    23rd/05/2010 to 8:24 pm

    Thanks, Sam. I am a big fan of The Circle, but now that I’ve seen Offside, I prefer it. It isn’t quite as polemical and it has such great wit and humor.

  • Pat spoke:
    24th/05/2010 to 4:23 pm

    I am always stunned, saddened and shocked to learn just how barbaric a totalitarian governement can be it its quest to stifle dissent or free expression. I ‘ve not yet seen any of Panahi’s fims, but I’d like to see this one, based on your fine review.

    Marilyn, I commend you for fighting the good fight and promoting awareness of Panahi’s situation. As always, you are attuned to the greater issues in the world that shape -and are reflected in – cinema, which makes your blog so outstanding.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    24th/05/2010 to 4:43 pm

    Thank you, Pat, for the compliment. I’m humbled by your regard.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    25th/05/2010 to 9:33 am

    Your prayers have not gone unanswered Marilyn, and the international community has apparently exerted enough pressure for today’s release of Mr. Panahi from prison. This is truly cause for celebration.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    25th/05/2010 to 9:50 am

    Yes, Sam. I was all over Twitter and Facebook yesterday with the news. Even Roger Ebert, who thought protest would do no good, ate his words. Perhaps this could become a movement to help free other political prisoners. As my review of The Reckoning suggests, worldwide unity and calls for accountability do have an effect.

  • marlene spoke:
    14th/04/2013 to 5:21 am

    We saw the movie in a strange situation: it was shown in an inner-city junior high, as an after-school activity for the students. That it was to be screened was publicised and 3 adults dropped in out of nowhere, among only about 15 students. The idea was to have a discussion on gender issues with the students after the movie. But it finished too late and the kids had to go, leaving only the teachers and us-outsiders for the discussion.
    One of the important points that came out was the multiple reactions of the different male characters toward the girls. In the bus, one boy was very upset as having a girl with them; another said to let her be, there were many others doing the same. The first boy then tried to be protective of her. When the girl escaped from the toilets to go see the match, interestingly enough one of the men stepped aside to let her through. Not all the men were negative toward their being there, which hopefully is a mirror of the Iranian male population.

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