Iran | ‘As if one were under water’

The Iranian women’s team failed to defend its title in the West Asian Women’s Football Championship, losing 1–2 to hosts Jordan earlier this month. (Yalda Moaiery | ISNA)

Kreuzberg team of Berlin learns about football under cover

Berlin | After months of diplomatic wrangling, filmmaker Ayat Najafi had to content himself with experiencing the centerpiece of his new project, Football Under Cover, as an exile.

At Ararat Stadium in Tehran on 28 Apr 06, Najafi stood outside the arena along with husbands of the women inside—players for the Iranian women’s national team, their amateur opponents, BSV Al-Dersimspor of Kreuzberg, and about 1,000 female supporters. As the women for the multicultural team from Berlin had to comply with Islamic clothing restrictions during the visit, Najafi had to respect the mandates covering gender segregation at public sporting events. He was tethered by mobile phone to the all-woman crew within, but it was not enough.

“For me the most terrible moment—it’s a sensitive moment—was not as a filmmaker but as a human,” said Najafi in a Sept 5 interview from his home in Berlin. “I fell in love with these footballers. They had all these problems, and they just want to play football. … At the very end I couldn’t be involved. I was really nervous outside the stadium when I had nothing to do.”

The match had come about as a by-product of a fortuitous meeting at the 2005 Berlinale Talent Campus, a segment of the Berlin International Film Festival that caters to up-and-coming filmmakers. As part of the Artistic and Cultural Programme of the 2006 FIFA World Cup, organizers had selected “Shoot Goals! Shoot Movies!” as a theme. The result was 45 short films, including Najafi’s Move It, a four-minute meditation on an Iranian woman’s footballing passions. At the conference, Najafi met Marlene Assmann, who had helped produce her own film, Der Weg ist das Spiel (The Way Is the Game), about the origins of BSV Al-Dersimspor as a melding of players with Turkish, German, Greek, Arab and Eastern European backgrounds. Assmann, along with two sisters and a cousin, had helped establish the side in the distinctive capital borough abutting the earlier location of the Berlin Wall.

Najafi

Assmann and Najafi together conceived another cultural exchange, on the level of nations, in proposing a home-and-home friendly series between Al-Dersimspor and Iran. The matches would be depicted in a documentary film, tentatively titled Football Under Cover. As Najafi details in our interview, the diplomatic hurdles proved mountainous, but ultimately surmountable due to ideological splits within the regime. The Iranian diplomatic corps seemed to object to the exchange, while the matches had the blessing of Iranian football authorities, who have been trying to develop women’s football over the past decade. (There are some 20 women’s clubs in the country.)

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