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

One sees how Panahi has channeled such frustration, including his battles with censors and restrictive cinema authorities in Iran, into films such as Offside. Characters in his film are regarded generously, even the police arresting the women at the Iran-Bahrain qualifier. One of the policemen hails from Azerbaijan and reveals an irritation at his job “when he feels he should be watching over his father’s sheep.” He agrees to have periodic (inaccurate) match commentary provided for everyone’s benefit. As critic Cynthia Fuchs writes about the characters, “None of them is where he or she wants to be” (“Offside,” popmatters.com).

Panahi sees his films’ characters as trying to escape boundaries, to break through a “closed circle.” The metaphor became explicit in The Circle (2000), concerning the seemingly never-ending cycle of societal restrictions, from birth to death, confronting Iranian women. The motif of the circle in Panahi’s work extends to the cinematic form of plan-séquence, uninterrupted takes several minutes in length that enforce the idea of boundaries. Even the filmmaker, through editing and splicing to create new reality, does not tamper with the time line and space limitations that help define existence (see Stephen Teo, “The Case of Jafar Panahi,” Senses of Cinema, Jun 01). In Offside, a plan-séquence follows one of the girls as she is escorted to a stadium bathroom—naturally, a men’s room. She is forced to wear a makeshift mask to protect her from reading the virulent bathroom graffiti.

Within the film’s broader narrative, Panahi makes clear that he let the outcome of the football match determine the course of Offside. “What if Iran had lost?” asks Panahi in the LA Weekly interview. He suggests that defeat to Bahrain would have derailed the film’s cathartic finish—scenes of wild street celebrations in which women are involved—and made him scrap the idea entirely. “It was soccer,” Panahi says, “that imposed the new vision on me and gave me a road map.”

As the celebration ensues—in lieu of a potentially macabre sequence, had Iran lost, in which the women would have been delivered from holding pen to prison—Panahi chooses as accompaniment to the street bacchanalia the 1946 Persian anthem “Ey Iran.” The anthem—its presence in the film in keeping with the ritualistic nature of football matches, Panahi says—does not celebrate the fallen monarch or present Islamic rule, but a more individualistic regard for one’s home. Lyrics were written by Hossein Gol-e-Golab:

The stones of your mountain are jewels and pearls

The soil of your valleys are better than gold

When could I rid my heart of your affection?

Tell me, what will I do without your affection?

As long the turning of the earth and the cycling of the sky lasts

The light of the Divine will always guide us

The song has not been adopted by any Iranian government, another mystery for pan-humanists such as Panahi. Despite continued concern about the creative environment at home, Panahi says he finds inspiration within such creative boundaries. Although Offside screened in 2006 in a “side section” of the Fajr Film Festival in Tehran, public viewings have since been banned. He says in an interview on the Offside DVD that arrangements had been made for domestic distribution. Indications were that the film would have broken box-office records. Yet bootleg DVDs, as with previous Panahi films, flooded the streets, and the protests of women football fans persisted for a time. Some even devised a new slogan, “We don’t want to be offside,” as part of their demonstrations.

Panahi reflects, in this 2002 interview clip, on the lack of acknowledgment at home:

A two-minute clip from a 2002 installment of South Bank, an ITV (UK) production, including an excerpt from Panahi’s film The Circle. (© ITV Network Limited)

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