|Guarded by a reluctant soldier, girls|
disguised as boys try to attend the
Offside: This is a miracle of a film by Jafar Panahi, who is my new favorite director. 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 enjoyed wide and very popular distribution in Iran through pirated copies, according to the Director's Interview (be sure to see that too).
The story is simple, on the surface. It is 2006, leading up to the soccer World Cup. Women are not allowed to attend sports events in stadiums along with men. Several young girls who are a different kind of fanatic, soccer fans, just want to see a very important match, which might qualify Iran to go on to the 2006 World Cup. Separately, they attempt to disguise themselves as boys and slip in, but are caught and detained 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.
Soldiers guarding them are equally unhappy with the situation, for various reasons having nothing to do with the law; one, for example, wants to see the soccer match but can't because he's on duty, while another only wants to return to his village so he can help his mother out, and take their cattle to the pasture. Meanwhile, other people impinge -- a man wants to find his daughter, but finds her friend instead; boys disguise themselves as girls disguised as boys, in an attempt to meet the girls. A soldier, peering at the game through bars, gives the girls a blow-by-blow account of the action. 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. The inept young soldier must navigate the various outre characters he finds there in a futile attempt to guard one of the girls, but she escapes his watch and gets to see some of the game. But ultimately there is no freedom here and 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.
Eventually, before the match ends, they are put on into a bus--along with a young street boy who has been trying to smuggle firecrackers into the stadium--where all the 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 with its magnificent directing, acting, and writing-- full of small and large ironies and playful references-- to catch the full magic; the film must be experienced and my words can only be flat in comparison to the seamlessly flowing, charming, and endearing story it tells.
Offside is filled with humorous incidents and characters, as 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 surreal 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, or struggle to fulfill their talent in a society that hems them in. Just as Dubya Bush, who claimed to get crazy messages from God, did not represent most Americans' values or policies, Offside demonstrates that 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 doesn't suit their characters or lives. Where Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis (in its fine animated adaptation) focused 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 will survive, current tyranny.
For those of us who don't know anything about soccer (or football, as it's called in the rest of the world) 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 soccer (I don't) because it's about people and has the aura of truth. In fact it takes place in "real time," in the same 90 minutes as the soccer match; and much of it is based on, and actually filmed against the background of, real events. It's not a documentary, but it feels real and intimate.
It also feels edgy, but only because of the context in which it was made (Iranian women have faced, and too often not survived, very terrible abuse while incarcerated) and while it 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 at best, and have been brutally treated, at worst. The film is also 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, just 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