Thursday, March 22, 2007

Coming Soon: Offside

If you want to see a football (soccer) match in Iran and you happen to be woman, than forget it. To protect women from all the harsh language in the stadium, the paternal Iranian regime won’t let female fans attend live games. It may not be the most pressing human rights abuse in Iran, but as the subject of Iranian director Jafar Panahi’s Offside, it most assuredly fell outside the bounds of acceptable fare for the state authorities, and is emblematic of the autocratic sexism of the Islamic-fascist government.

Offside (trailer here) tells the story of several young Iranian girls who try to sneak into the forbidden football stadium for a crucial World Cup qualifying match against Bahrain. They try to disguise themselves as boys, with varying degrees of success, but are eventually rounded up by the reluctant military conscripts working the security detail, to be turned over to the vice squad at the end of the match. As the young women cool their heels in a holding pen, they try to engage their captors, who have difficulty defending the policy they enforce. In fact, several of the female fans seem much more knowledgeable about the game than the soldiers guarding them.

Panahi filmed under difficult circumstances, without official sanction. When the film made the international festival circuit, Time reported:

“Panahi was denied a license to shoot Offside, so, using a fake name, he submitted a phony synopsis about a group of boys attending a football game and got the Ministry’s approval. Without the equipment or funding that the government hands out to other directors, he shot with a digital camera and small crew. Five days before the shoot was finished, the authorities discovered they’d been duped. ‘The police in Tehran were under orders to arrest us if they saw us shooting,’ Panahi says. ‘Luckily, the only scenes we had left were in a minibus, so we drove out of the city borders where they couldn’t find us.’”

Since Panahi was denied permission to film Offside, he shot on digital video, giving the film a cinema vérité look. He cast non-professional actors, to avoid any sense of affectation. Although the young actors are not always comfortable in their roles, some, like Shayesteh Irani as the tomboyish “Smoking girl,” are quite good.

As a film it is reasonably entertaining—sort of the dystopian version of Bend it Like Backham—and it is particularly interesting as a small unfiltered snapshot of Iranian life. Far from a full scale indictment of the Iranian regime, Offside is rather a small slice of everyday absurdism. To borrow an American cliché, one should not question Panahi’s patriotism. In fact, the film is suffused with a love of country, as the young fans want nothing more than to chant and cheer for their national team.

According to the Time piece reprinted in the press materials, even though Offside has only been screened once in Iran, at a film festival in an inferior time slot, word of the film helped temporarily overturn the ban on women at sporting events, until the religious authorities vetoed the policy change. Offside might seem slight—a group of women trying to simply watch a sporting event—but it signifies an act of rebellion, and indeed ends with a very minor rebellion of sorts. One can hope that the minor rebellions of Offside are baby steps leading towards more sweeping changes. Offside opens in New York and Los Angeles tomorrow, hopefully rolling out to further cities shortly thereafter.

(Thanks to Karol at Alarming News, who also finds the issues raised by Offside noteworthy. Gateway Pundit has more background here.)