Last Sunday evening I had one of the greatest movie experiences this year so far. Ever since I wanted to share it with you but did not have the time to tell you about it properly. I say properly because this film has so many implications and combines so deep individual and social issues that I wanted to be more thoroughful about it. So I made some research too and read through several interviews with the director, the Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi.
The film I saw is Offside, released in 2006 and the winner of the top prize at the Berlin film festival. It is not the first strong movie from the author: he is the director of "The Circle" (2000) and "Crimson Gold" (2003), both of them banned in Iran.
Jafar Panahi’s film career began when he worked as assistant director on Abbas Kiarostami's Through the Olive Trees (1994). Their later work, The White Balloon (1995), won the Camera d’Or at Cannes.
The story in a nutshell: a couple of young women dress as men and try to sneak their way (each of them using different techniques beside the cross-dressing) into Tehran’s Azadi Stadium to watch a World Cup qualifying match between Iran and Bahrain. Why they dress as men and why all the masquerade? According to a law “passed” after the 1979 Islamic revolution, women are forbidden from watching live football matches. This is not written in the law of Iran, this is a kind of unwritten law that everybody needs to respect. The reasoning behind this says that women should not be exposed to the swearing that they would hear from the male audience at the stadiums, but another point made by the ulema recently is that it is not correct for women to see men with bare arms and legs, which necessarily happens at football matches.
This film is their story: how they try to get in the stadium, how they get caught if they do, and what happens to them once they are arrested. It could be simple story-telling but the director combined so much intelligence, humanity and humor at the same time that it could easily make one of the best movies I will have seen in 2011. I feel so lucky that I have this movie in my collection. I laughed, I was excited and curious about what was going to happen, and at the same time got a view into one of the most complicated social structures currently existing.
The film was inspired by the occasion when Mr Panahi wanted to go to a match together with his then twelve-year-old daughter, who, now easy to guess, was not allowed to get in. She told her father to go inside until she waits for him outside. But not long after she showed up next to her father watching the game. She never explained how she managed to sneak in.
The curiosity about the movie is that things happen real-time: the event is real and the actors are amateurs. The takes are very long. Because the event was real, only half of the script was in place at the time of shooting the film, the other half of it depended on the outcome of the game. The movie is somewhere between documentary and fiction. The young man playing the soldier was an ordinary young man from Tabriz, the girls university students, but all very passionate about soccer.
In the film itself they are also not just soldiers and fans. In Iran, army service is mandatory when men turn 18. So the conscripts are not really representatives of the government, they are also from the people. The girls therefore also do not only look at them as soldiers but also as their fellow citizens and are very understanding about their problems and life stories. As Jafar Panahi puts it: „Both the soldiers and the girls are trapped within social restrictions and the kind of discrimination that is exposed in the movie affects all of them and has consequences throughout society. That’s why, when there are protest rallies regarding women’s rights, you see the presence of Iranian men as well. It shows that they sympathize with women and join their voices to that contest.” In Panahi’s films people are never perfectly immaculate or deeply rotten, his view is truly humanistic and eager to show what lies beneath the network of society. This is an element that is presented in The Circle and also in Offside. In both films the gender question plays a major part in the sense that women are as much the parts of society as men and should be treated this way, but Panahi does not fall into the mistake of depicting them as pure angels. In Offside we see the strong young woman acting almost just like a man and at the same time we see the religious girl who gives herself up before the police would search her in the fear of being touched, or who wears the chador but still, would like to go and see the game live in the stadium. As the director says: “I believe that it is the greatest insult to women that they have to deny their identity as women and have to dress as men to take part in society.”
The other curiosity about the film itself is that as a banned filmmaker, Mr. Panahi faces more obstacles at his work than most directors. For each film he needs to work out a trick to fool the authorities, tricks that can only be applied once. At Offside he submitted a script covering the story of some boys who go to a match. Police did not raise any obstacles but the Ministry of Guidance (the one approving film releases) objected to it referring to the previous, disliked works of the author. Mr. Panahi totally rejects censorship: “I have always said I would never let anyone change one frame. That's my belief. If I censor myself in that way the movies won't be mine. ” The director definitely wanted the film to be out before the World Cup so time was running short. Finally, Offside was banned but only two days had to pass until Iranians had the DVD copies. Fortunately in Iran only the director and the producers can be banned, the actors do not get into trouble.
If you are used to Iranian filmmaking, you know that these movies leave more to the interpretation of the viewer itself and do not tell you too straight a kind of truth or opinion about the world.
Yet there is a message. “We are not trying to fight against anybody or challenge anybody with our films. All we want to do is raise a social issue. We want to tell those in government that there is this problem so at least they can think more deeply about it. We want to persuade them that there are more rational ways of tackling and dealing with these problems than sheer restriction or ignoring them.” – these are the words of the director, who classifies himself as a “socially committed filmmaker” deliberately not making political films not to “put an expiration date” on them. And what he believes and thinks about the future of Iran? “I firmly believe that our people are civilized people and educated and intelligent enough to start to fight for their own rights, and to satisfy their own needs.” Maybe this is why Offside is an optimistic movie.
And one more thing I was really happy to know about the author: his favorite film is the „Bicycle Thieves” from Vittorio De Sica.
If you have not seen any of the two films: Offside and Bicycle Thieves, do it NOW.
(Interviews that I used were originally conducted and published by: www.reverseshot.com, www.thephoenix.com, www.opendemocracy.net – the best interview of all of them -, www.wsws.org)