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Iran Bans the Girls: A Review of the Film “Offside”

Charlie Bass Apr 7, 2007

Offside (2006)
Directed by Jafar Panahi

Like other directors of the Iranian New Wave, Jafar Panahi uses techniques associated with both documentary and neorealist traditions to give his politically urgent films a low-key, but deadly serious immediacy. In Offside, the director applied these same techniques (location shooting, hand-held cameras, non-professional actors) to make another film about the repression of women under Iran’s Islamist regime (after 2000’s The Circle), but this time it’s a comedy. Adopting a lighter touch, Panahi nonetheless retains his harshly critical perspective, causing Offside, like many of his earlier films, to be banned in Iran.

The concept of Offside is so metaphorically tidy that it could have easily proven trite or simplistic in lesser hands: a group of rabid teenage female soccer fans disguise themselves as boys and try to sneak into a World Cup match which, as women, they are forbidden to attend. Thankfully, Panahi makes several key decisions that exploit this concept to its fullest, starting with shooting the film on the run during an actual 2006 Iran-Bahrain match (the director deceived the authorities about his real intentions). Enhanced by the vérité-style filmmaking, this collapse of fiction and reality provides the film with an edgy gravitas that grounds its dominant mode of situation comedy.

Opening his film with one poorly disguised girl noticed by a boy who wants to help her, Panahi shows us how banning women from sporting events is looked on as foolish by men and women alike, especially among the younger generation. Arriving at the game, each of the girls is quickly identified and taken to a holding pen outside the stadium, where they are overseen by a couple of hapless guards more interested in watching the game. The majority of the rest of the film takes place here, with the girls straining to see into the stadium while trying to convince their young guards to, if not let them go, at least tell them what’s happening during the game.

Panahi wisely locks our perspective with the girls, so we share in their frustration at only catching the occasional tantalizing glimpse of the exciting game we hear off-screen. Exasperated, the girls slyly manipulate their captors. In a comically suspenseful scene, one girl uses a bathroom break to briefly escape her overwhelmed captor. The girls also discuss why the rule, based on an arbitrary idea of too much cursing and male flesh, seems so ridiculously outdated, especially since they watch games on TV.

Rather charmingly, it’s not these discussions that influence the guards, but instead the shared passion for soccer, as demonstrated in the unbridled celebration by everyone whenever Iran scores a goal. Indeed, the force of the movie’s argument comes less from its direct conversations about repression and more from the sheer excitement of the film’s non-actors – these girls genuinely love soccer and the Iranian team. They speak with enthusiasm about individual players and even reconstruct specific plays within their holding pen. In the end, the look on their faces when they hear a radio broadcast of Iran winning the game is worth a thousand arguments.

Offside is currently playing at Quad Cinema, 34 W. 13th St.