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Monday, September 17, 2012

Offside (film review)

Guarded by a reluctant soldier, girls
disguised as boys try to attend the
big game.

OffsideThis is a miracle of a film by Jafar Panahi, an Iranian director the whole world can love. Somehow I'd managed to miss it until now, but it was released by Sony Pictures Classics in 2006 in many countries. Sadly it was banned in Iran and so could not qualify for the Oscar competition, but (according to the Director's Interview on the DVD--be sure to see that too) Offside enjoyed wide and very popular distribution in Iran through pirated copies.

The story is simple, on the surface. It is 2006, in Iran, leading up to the soccer World Cup, and a very important match is taking place. Under the reigning theocracy, women are not allowed to attend sports events in stadiums along with men. But another kind of fanaticism, that of passionate sports fans, does not discriminate on the basis of sex. Several young women (some of them young teenagers, so I'll refer to them here as girls) just want to see a very important match which might qualify Iran to go on to the 2006 World Cup. Individually, determined to witness this important event, they attempt to disguise themselves as boys and slip in, but one by one they are caught and detained together in a sort of holding pen where they can hear the crowd but not see the game. They form a community of fans there, thwarted but not entirely prevented from being part of the communal event.

The soldiers guarding the young miscreants are equally unhappy with the situation, for various reasons having nothing to do with the law they must enforce. One wants to see the soccer match but can't because he's on duty; another is consumed by a concern about returning to his village so he can help his mother and take their cattle to the pasture. Meanwhile, other people impinge on the situation: A man wants to find his daughter, but recognizes her friend instead; boys disguise themselves as girls disguised as boys, in an attempt to meet the girls. One of the soldiers is able to follow the game by peering through bars, and gives the girls a blow-by-blow account of the action.

For those of us who don't know much about soccer (or football, as it's called in the rest of the world) the "offside" of the title refers to a rule which seems to have something to do with being in the game but not being able to take part, a very apt analogy to the girls' situation, if I'm reading that right. But you can enjoy this film even if you don't follow the sport (I don't) because it's about normal people just going about their lives, and has the aura of truth. In fact it takes place in "real time," in the same 90 minutes as the soccer match itself. And remarkably, much of it is based on, and actually filmed against the background of, real events. Bearing in mind the challenges the director faced during filming, the resulting seamless film demonstrates his genius in editing. It's not a documentary, but it feels real and intimate.

The spiritual center of oppression in the film, for me, found itself in a wonderfully bizarre scene in the men's rest room, which has all the frustration of an anxiety dream. Yielding to his innate humanity and allowing one of the girls a visit to the rest room, an inept young soldier must navigate the various outre characters he finds there in a futile attempt to guard his charge. One sympathizes with the soldier when the girl escapes his watch and actually gets to see some of the game. But ultimately she knows there is no freedom here. She returns to the holding pen in good conscience to describe part of the game to the other girls still detained, assigning them the parts of the players.

(Possible spoiler alert, this paragraph only:) Eventually, before the match ends, the prisoners are put into a bus, along with a young street boy who has been trying to smuggle firecrackers into the stadium. The intention is that all these lawbreakers will be turned over to the Vice Dept. and the soldiers can go back to their lives. But along the way girls, boys, and their soldiers all fuse with the larger crowds as Iran wins the match and the entire city erupts in egalitarian, joyful celebration. I hope that's not a spoiler, but it's no secret who won the match as this is based on real incidents.

As for the other details I've revealed, you really must see the film for its magnificent directing, acting, and writing--full of small and large ironies and playful references-- to catch the full magic. This movie must be experienced and my words can only be flat in comparison to the flow, charm, and endearing nature of the story it tells.

Offside is filled with humorous incidents and characters. Most delicious to me are conversations in which the girls challenge the logic of the law, and the soldiers attempt to explain it in standard terms that really have no bearing on the situation. In this frustrating situation the characters shine, each a unique gem of a human being with moments of revelation. No culture is one-size-fits-all, and there are always people who must be stifled as they struggle to fulfill their talent in a society that hems them in. Just as W. Bush claimed to get crazy messages from a god that did not represent most Americans' spirituality, Offside shows a country, or at least a situation, in which most modern Iranians, whether they're from village or city, are not represented by their government: They are living in a divided and surreal way under a fanatical religious regime which simply doesn't suit their characters or lives. Where Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis (in its fine animated adaptation) focused so well on an educated, politically active stratum of Iranian society, this is a street's eye view of the masses in a moment of celebration that reminded me of the bonfire-jumping of Nowruz (behavior also banned in the present Islamic Republic, which I read about in this book, and this). Offside is, for me, an affirmation of the greater Iranian history and character that preceded, and surely must survive, current tyranny.

Offside can feel edgy, but only because of the context in which it was made: The viewer is aware that Iranian women have faced, and too often not survived, very terrible abuse while incarcerated. And while the film tells the story of a seemingly trivial pursuit--a soccer match--every situation carries larger echoes of the years of suppression since the Islamic revolution of 1979, when women, filmmakers, intellectuals, and musicians have not been allowed to practice their gifts and sometimes have been brutally treated.

Offside can also feel very sweet, because the people in it are just human beings you might find anywhere, and (as often happens in real life) they do not encounter a single sadist in the entire 90 minutes, they only find other people who are sympathetic. It's a fine bit of balancing between humanity's darker side (which is only hinted at here) and our finer qualities of humor, empathy, hope, and enthusiasm. It's a human comedy quite unlike anything else I've seen in movies.

End note: unfortunately, things are worse than ever right now for filmmakers in Iran and Syria, and this brilliant auteur is now under house arrest and prevented from making films. Here are some recent stories on the current status:

Earlier, I posted some information on other suppressed artists, here: http://mypersonalblogccm.blogspot.com/2010/01/forbidden-beats-of-freedom.html