Iranian Women Barred From Soccer Games


What happens when six Iranian young women disguise themselves as men so they can watch a World Cup qualifying match in Tehran? This is the situation in which director Jafar Panahi places his talented actors (all nonprofessionals) who play their fictional roles in the very real setting of a soccer stadium in Iran, where the national team faces Bahrain.

Women are not allowed in sports stadiums in Iran. So when Panahi went to get permission to make his film, he told the authorities that it was about boys who go to a soccer game. He got approval and promptly made Offside, a humorous and engaging film that defies easy categorization. It's not quite a sports movie -- we only get a few distant glimpses of the soccer match -- and it's not a purely fictional film. But one thing is certain: It is a film worth seeing.

Panahi got the idea for the film several years ago when his daughter wanted to accompany him to a soccer stadium. He didn't think she would be allowed in, but he decided to take her anyway. She was indeed turned away, but to his amazement, found a way in and joined him in the stands.

Winner of the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, Offside captures the plight of women soccer fans who try -- often unsuccessfully -- to bluff their way into the stadium.

In an early scene, we see a young woman trying to pass as a man on a stadium-bound bus full of men. One passenger points her out to his friend who remarks that women know how to get into the stadium. Instead of reporting her to the authorities, they let her continue her quest to get in. Panahi makes it clear at the outset that people do find ways to get around the rules, and not everyone agrees with enforcing them.

Besides providing lively, character-driven entertainment, the film comments on the political and social contradictions in Iranian society, where, for example, custom prevents women from attending soccer games (to shield them from profanity) but allows them access to movie theaters.

Much of the film takes place in the holding area on the upper level of the stadium where women are forced to stay until the vice squad picks them up and takes them away. The women can hear the crowd but can't see anything, so they plead with the soldiers to let them inside the stadium, saying that they can blend in with the crowd. One woman points out that Japanese women were in the stadium when Japan played Iran. "Well, they couldn't understand the swear words," says one soldier. "So my problem is that I was born in Iran?" she retorts.

The camera often takes a verité documentary approach, blurring the line between fact and fiction. Some of the soldiers are not just playing a role; they are real soldiers serving in the Iranian army. And Panahi's direction is so self-assured and the acting so natural that you forget you are watching actors. He captures the fervor of soccer fans -- male and female -- and their intense desire for their country to qualify for the World Cup.

The script, written by Panahi and Shadmehr Rastin, is filled with unexpected humor, particularly from the women who have the best lines. Upon seeing a tomboy smoking a cigarette, one of the soldiers asks if she's a girl or a boy. "Which do you prefer?" she replies.

Another laugh-out-loud scene occurs when one of the women must use the bathroom, which is, of course, for men only, and we see how one soldier struggles with the task of taking her there and "protecting" her from the graffiti on the walls. Here, Panahi shows the perspective of the soldiers, who are not comfortable with confining the women but also don't want to get in trouble with their superiors and risk having more time added to their mandatory military service.

According to press notes, none of Panahi's films have been released in Iran; however, Offside did have one at least one screening in Tehran at the Fajr International Film Festival last year.

Panahi's previous films have been described as neo-realist and dealt with poverty-stricken men and the struggle of women in Tehran, apparently subjects the Iranian government doesn't wants its people to be reminded of. Panahi says that he makes his films for Iranians, but so far, his main audience has been people outside of Iran who have seen his work at film festivals and in art house theaters.

Offside has been a darling of the film festival circuit, and deservedly so. It is now making the art house cinema rounds in the U.S.

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