Cinema | Iranian women, in Panahi’s film, move beyond a boundary

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The trailer from Offside. Panahi’s feature received a limited U.S. release in Los Angeles and New York on Mar 23. (Copyright © 2006 Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc.)

Toward the end of an extraordinary interview with Dorna Khazeni in LA Weekly, Iranian film director Jafar Panahi asks his interlocutor if she understands the fundamental metaphor driving the film Offside.

“Wait, do you even know what an offside is in soccer?” he asks.

“No, not really. I just know it’s a soccer term,” I reply.

“See, I knew it! I should have given you a list of questions to ask me.”

Panahi

Panahi explains how football’s offside rule correlates with his film work. His films “are constructed around the notion of restriction, limitation, confinement and boundaries.” Similarly, the women in Offside—Panahi’s 2006 production now receiving limited American release—have “entered a forbidden space before the law has given them permission to do so. They don’t have that permission yet, but they’ve gone ahead and entered the territory anyway. They’ve overturned the rules” (“The Beautiful Game,” Mar 21).

The origins of Panahi’s new movie, his fifth full-length feature to have gained international distribution, date to Iran’s second qualification for a World Cup finals, in 1998. During celebrations, some 5,000 women entered the stadium, prompting reflection about state policy barring women at other times. Also, Panahi recalled his daughter’s attempts to sneak into a football match when she was 12. Prevented from entering, she was sitting at her father’s side within 10 minutes. Asked how, she said, “Where there’s a will there’s a way” (see “Jafar Panahi on Offside,” payvand.com, Mar 7).

Such has been the experience of women in Iran who since the establishment of the Islamic republic in 1979 have faced a labyrinth of restrictions, including the de facto ban on watching men play sport in public spaces. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad‘s attempt to nullify the ban in Apr 06 was overturned by clerics two weeks later. So, over years, women have resorted to political statement and artifice, disguising themselves as men, to gain entry to Azadi (Freedom) Stadium, the 90,000-capacity sport palace in Iran’s capital, Tehran.

Women have been arrested, and a well-known activist, Mahboubeh Abbass-Gholizadeh, had her leg broken by a stadium gate during protests at the match that forms the mise-en-scéne for Offside: a World Cup qualifier versus Bahrain on 8 Jun 05. Iran’s 1–0 victory clinched its appearance in the 2006 finals in Germany. The non-professional actors who play the female protagonists in Offside—they are primarily students from Tehran University—opt for the secretive approach by wearing oversized clothes, feature-cloaking hats and, in one case, a policeman’s uniform. They are rounded up and watched by a ragtag police detail, who are dragged into debates about the ethics of preventing the women from entry but who are more interested in seeing the game themselves.

True to the style of neo-realism that he assimilated in tutelage to Abbas Kiarostami, Panafi stages much of his film at the match, incorporating crowds and sounds at the giant Tehran stadium. The digital camera, chosen over 35mm so that the filmmakers would not draw attention to what they were doing, does not show snippets of game action to respect the women whose view was similarly restricted. Panahi tells Khazeni:

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