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

The space of the stadium itself is masculine space. Then there’s the holding pen where the young women are held. Women are banned from the one and men from the other. I decided the camera had to be placed on the outside of the fence and could not enter either space. Because it can’t enter the space and move between the girls, there can’t be any dialogue amongst the girls. The camera can’t disclose their characters to the viewer in the way it would if it could enter their space.

Women, despite being turned away from Azadi Stadium on 1 Mar 06, before a friendly versus Costa Rica, show patriotic spirit. Photographer Noushin Najafi on her website includes a series of images of protesters denied entry on 8 Jun 05, the day of Panahi’s filming. Some 200 women brandishing white scarves—they are known as the “White Scarf Girls”—successfully forced their way in for the second half. (Copyright © 2006 Noushin Najafi)

Panahi’s satirical vision raises the myriad of questions that women in Iran have asked about their absurd reality. How, in the name of devotion to country and faith, could they be denied the right to join with others in a patriotic act of support? Why are they forbidden to watch footballers at the stadium when watching on television is permissible? Why are women of other countries—from the Republic of Ireland and Japan, for example, for previous World Cup qualifying matches—permitted entry to Azadi Stadium and they are not? The fictional policemen in Panahi’s film address this last question, if dismissively. Japanese women do not understand Farsi, therefore they are permitted. One of the Iranian women in the holding pen responds, “My problem is I was born in Iran?”

One could raise the question about the women themselves: Why do they work so hard to celebrate a country that represses them? To this, Panahi answers that “the girls want to be a part of the world community. … There’s a need to assert this reality, that we’re not as different from the rest of the world as we’re being made out to be. Accept us.”

Panahi’s own travels have taught him that Iran does not hold a monopoly on denying the simplest of human rights. On 15 Apr 01, en route to Buenos Aires from Hong Kong, Panahi was arrested at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York for lack of a transit visa and was held in handcuffs and leg irons, chained to a bench for 10 hours for refusing to be fingerprinted. Similar bureaucratic nightmares have confronted fellow Middle Eastern filmmakers attempting to enter the United States. Recently, Saudi filmmaker Abdullah al-Muheisin was denied entry for the New York Arab and South Asian Film Festival; the festival director intentionally shied away from inviting Iranian directors such as Kiarostami, Panahi and Mohsen and Samira Makhmalbaf (Amitabh Pal, “U.S. Visa Policy Inhumane and Counterproductive,” The Progressive, Mar 8). The absurdity is clear. Artists who, like Panahi, see their mission as depicting “humanitarian events … in a poetic and artistic way,” are denied the basic human consideration of freedom of movement. “I’m guilty of the crime of being Iranian,” Panahi says.

Safar Samandar plays the role of the Azeri policeman. With his fellows, he bars the women from entry so they will not hear rowdy language. “Let us in,” one of the women responds. “We promise not to listen.” (Copyright © 2006 Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc.)

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