5 or 6 years ago, Iranian film director Jafar Panahi was headed off to a soccer game at Azadi Stadium in Tehran. His 10 year old daughter begged to come with. Females are not allowed to go to the stadium to watch soccer games. It is the rule. Panahi explained to his daughter – No, you cannot … it is the law that you cannot go. It’s a stupid law, but it is the law. But she begged. Panahi was not about to stay home – he wanted to go to the game – so he struck a deal with his daughter. He said, “Okay – we’ll go – and we’ll see if we can sneak you in somehow. But if they catch us – you have to come back home, because I want to go to the game.” His daughter agreed. Of course, they get to the security gates at the stadium, and immediately the guards said, “Nope. She can’t go in.” As agreed, the daughter walked off – in the direction of home – and Panahi went on in to his seat in the stadium. About 10 minutes later, he looked up – and saw his daughter strolling down the steps towards him. She sat beside him. He was gobsmacked to see her and asked, “How did you get in?” And she said, “There is always a way.”
That comment (“There is always a way”) was the germ of the idea for Offside, Panahi’s 2006 film about a group of 6 girls who dress up as boys and try to get in to see a soccer match in Tehran.
The girls are not trying to sneak in to see just a soccer match – but THE soccer match in 2005 – when Iran played Bahrain and won, therefore qualifying for the World Cup. Much of Offside was filmed in real-time, during that game. The celebrations you see at the end of the film were actual celebrations. Panahi filmed with handheld cameras much of the time, since he did not have permission to do what he was doing … but since it was a national event with media there, to cover the soccer game, he was able to blend in, and nobody wondered who that guy over there was, filming things. Offside feels like a documentary in many ways, there are no “extras”, no set-up interiors … it’s all out in the open, with the sound of the stadium roaring in the background.
Panahi is known for his documentary-like films, much of which take place out in the streets of Tehran. He doesn’t like to do domestic dramas because when you film inside a house – because of the restrictions placed on actors – you cannot have it be realistic. For example, in real life – a woman comes home, hangs out with her husband and children – and she takes her veil off. She sits in her own home, and doesn’t need to be veiled. But because it is a FILM, the woman then has to be veiled at all times, even privately in her own kitchen. Panahi doesn’t like that. It grates on him, film should be as real as possible. So he likes to shoot out in the streets, he likes to use unprofessional actors – people who are right for the part, look right, whatever … Most of his films have to do with restrictions anyway – and he is truly inventive, in how he goes about doing what he’s doing, working under such conditions, trying to get around the censors, and the moronic Director of Culture, or whatever his title is. But he still gets into trouble anyway.
Panahi’s film Crimson Gold was being considered for an Academy Award nomination – but one of the requirements of the Academy is that any film under consideration must have been screened for at least one week in its native country. Crimson Gold had not been screened at all. It hadn’t made it past the censors (it was too “dark”), and the Dipshit of Culture refused to distribute it at all. Sony wrote letters to the powers-that-be in Iran, mullahs and bureaucrats, begging them to screen it for one week only – so that it could be in the running for an Academy Award nomination. (First of all, Kudos to Sony for that.) Sadly, the answer was a resounding No – and so Crimson Gold couldn’t be on the short list. Panahi has had many notorious moments such as that – and he is always on the outskirts of being in trouble, somehow.
I love his stuff. It has a real-time feel to it. He rarely uses professional actors. There is a rawness and an honesty to the performances – and he takes credit for that (in a good way). He believes that it is the director’s job to make sure the actor feels confident enough to give the performance. So if an actor is bad, unprofessional or professional, the director shares much of the blame. And Panahi tells the actors that right off the bat, especially the unprofessionals – those who have never worked before – who say to him, anxiously, “I don’t know how to act!” He reassures them – Yes. You do. I will not let you look bad. You are perfect for the part. You’re going to be great – and if you’re not? It’s MY fault, not yours.
Iranian directors need to find ways to get around all the malarkey, the draconian censorship, the fact that 30 groups of people (not artists) have to sign off on the film before it can even be considered for distribution. So if you’re portraying a guy in the army – you have to send a copy of the film to the damn army and say, “Is it okay how we are portraying you?” And so it goes. Many Iranian films do not open at all in Iran – but have much success abroad. But now, with the bustling traffic in bootleg DVDs – most people in Iran are fully aware of the vibrant awesome films their countrymen/women are making. And that’s great. Their film industry is something to be proud of. (Excerpt here about Iranian cinema).
Offside did not open at all in Iran, for obvious reasons (I mean: the reasons are obvious if you think like a mullah.) Offside is not subtle. It is a truly subversive film, in the best sense of the word, a sharp-edged piece of political and social art – but on the other hand – it’s not ponderous, or intellectual, or heavy-handed. Quite the contrary. Offisde is hysterical, exuberant, fun, exciting – there are moments at the end when I found myself on the edge of my seat, and then found myself bursting into applause, along with the girls.
Panahi makes his points though. He makes his points. So much so that at a soccer game last year, a group of Tehrani women showed up at the gates of the stadium, wearing white scarves, and holding up big signs saying, “WE DON’T WANT TO BE OFFSIDE”. Pretty awesome.
So obviously, despite the fact that those in control did not allow Offside to be shown – it was available, bootleg, on the sidewalk, whatever. Even though it made no “actual” money, as in tickets sold, it’s one of Panahi’s most successful films – he thinks everyone in Iran has seen it, probably! His view is: denying women their basic rights (going to see a soccer game, participating in the national celebration, etc.) is not just bad for women, but bad for everyone. It also forces women to be duplicitous – and that was one of the big points he wanted to make, too. Instead of women being allowed to go into the stadium dressed as women, with veils and skirts, etc – women who want to go HAVE to be sneaky, and cut their hair, and put on pants, and dress up as boys, and take these huge risks. They have to participate in the mindset that says that they are “other”. Maybe the woman is very religious, maybe she is devoted to wearing her chador because it expresses her religious feelings – but she ALSO happens to be a soccer fan … so she must abandon that essential part of herself, her religion, and dress in a way that doesn’t feel right to her. This is obviously a crazy-making situation – and it’s not just with soccer but all levels of Iranian life. Panahi has daughters. He sees it at work in his own life. And he doesn’t think it’s right. And so his films try to address these issues – for future generations, who hopefully will not have to live under such restrictions. But he believes his films will stay “fresh”, because they will be documents “of how we lived once”.
I really admire Panahi, in case you haven’t guessed. I admire him for his courage – I mean, imagine being a director and KNOWING that the film you are making will not be shown anywhere in your native land. It’s like Vaclav Havel writing plays for decades which garnered critical praise around the world – yet his own countrymen were never allowed to see the plays. It is the typical story of being exiled within one’s own nation. And so it gives Panahi’s films, and Iranian films in general, a very specific intensity, a piercing sense of courage and import – because you know what it took to get them made, and you know that they are rarely congratulated by their own nation’s bureaucrats – for doing Iran proud. Panahi feels that being considered for an Academy Award is an honor, and not just for him – but for all of Iran. The mullahs and the ruling regime obviously feel differently.
What is so terrific about the films from Iran is that you do feel the overshadowing sense of a State with a capital S … and yet the individual is not crushed. The individual survives. But because of censorship, they are forced to be subtle. And thus, in some cases, way more inventive. My review of Fireworks Wednesday addresses some of those issues. Fireworks Wednesday is, essentially, a soap opera – but underneath, you can sense a social critique, a critique of the class divide in Tehran, and an honest look at the chador and what it represents. It’s breathtakingly courageous, when seen in the proper context! Without the context, you might just think: Whatever, it’s a soap opera. But no. Movies represent individuals, and it is the individual who is most feared in a theocratic or totalitarian government. It is the individual who is the most dangerous. Crowds can run you over, it is true … the masses are quite powerful in and of themselves … but there is nothing more frightening to a ruling power than the individual. And that is why Offside, with its fond and funny portraits of these 6 girls trying to bust into the stadium to see the soccer game, is subversive. As subversive as a secret political movement or underground newspaper or jailed dissident. Because it says: We are individuals. ALL of us.
Panahi saw the film as a comedy, despite the seriousness of the issue being presented. That’s probably one of the reasons why it was banned so fiercely, because nobody likes to be laughed at, nobody likes to be told, “You know what? Your laws are not just stupid – but they are downright silly!!” He said, “It’s a funny situation. 100,000 men are watching a soccer game, and because these girls are women they can’t go inside. I didn’t need to add anything to it.”
None of the girls have names. But they all have recognizable personalities, separate characteristics.
There is the “leader”, played by Shayesteh Irani: a tough girl who smokes – who really does look like a boy in her get-up. It’s hard to tell what her gender is. She is brought to the little “jail” in the back of the stadium, where they put all the girls who tried to bust in – and one of the guards looks at her, says, “Are you a boy or a girl?” and she gives him a cocky look and fires back, “Which do you prefer?” She is tough, she is aggressive, she wants to see the game, and she is PISSED that she is missing it.
There is the quiet worried girl played by Sima Mobarak-Shahi who opens the film. She’s on a minibus filled with rowdy guys, and she hopes her disguise will work (although a couple of the guys on the bus figure it out – she’s obviously a novice. The other girls are way more tricky, and know how to ACT like a boy – she is still too stylish). She has the colors of Iran painted on her face, and she’s pretty, delicate-looking, and very serious. Her energy is a bit different from the other girls – all of whom are, frankly, soccer FANATICS – just as out of control as the boys. She’s more subdued, and at the end we figure out why.
It’s also a nice touch: along the journey of the day (the film takes place in 90 minutes – the exact time of the soccer match between Iran and Bahrain in 2005) – boys come in and out of their experience … the boys are everywhere: on the bus, in line at the stadium, in the stands, in the men’s room – and there are a couple of moments where you can see the boys, the younger generation, as separate and distinct from the mullahs and the regime. For example, one boy on the minibus looks at her, and realizes: wow. That’s a girl. He pulls one of his friends aside and gestures over towards the girl, sitting by herself – and he says, “That’s a girl!” His friend says, “It’s none of your business. Don’t mess up her plan for her.” You know, those small moments of solidarity … of looking the other way … Totalitarian regimes are expert in creating duplicitous populations – those who behave one way in public and another way in private. I have a Persian friend who told me the parties in private houses in the suburbs of Tehran are some of the best and most insane parties he’s ever been to. Of course at any moment the Vice Squad could knock at the door, and then everyone runs around and the girls put on their veils, and the smuggled booze is dumped down the toilet, and someone answers the door and says, “Yes, we’re having a prayer meeting … sorry we were a bit loud.” Vice Squad drives off, and then the veils are ripped off again, boys girls dancing together, music blasting, etc. You become adept at lying. Even if you are an honest person. And so there are a couple of boys the girls encounter through the day who sort of make way for them, and let them pass … let them “try to get in” if they want to … it’s none of our business. If you think about the Vice Squad, and the sense that the women in the country are OWNED by the men – by ALL the men, not just their fathers and husbands – but the “virtue” of women is seen as a national concern – then just those small details, kind boys looking the other way and letting the girls try to sneak in … is also subversive. Because it says, in no uncertain terms: “WE’RE together – the boys and the girls. YOU in the regime are the ones who are on the outside. ”
One of my favorite moments in the film comes when a guard is taking one of the girls to the bathroom. He has to make sure there are no men in there. Finally she goes into one of the stalls. While she’s in there, a group of guys come into the restroom – and the guard tells them, No, you can’t go in. They fight back. It’s 7 against 1. The poor guard is shoving at the guys, and everyone is rowdy and shouting. The girl comes back out from the stall, timidly, and peeks around the corner. She sees the brou-haha in the narrow hallway leading out into the stadium. She isn’t sure what to do. She’s supposed to be under guard – but the guard, at the moment, is busy fighting with the 7 guys. One of those guys (the one wearing the green flag wrapped around his head above) has already had words with the guard, and had already seen the girl being led into the bathroom. He looks up from the fight, and notices the girl peeking around the corner. Wordlessly, he gestures to her – “Run – I won’t stop you …” and he pushes in against the crowd of fighting guys – so she has more room to run by. Which she does. She runs out.
I just love that moment. Individual acts of kindness. The boy might be perceived as an enemy – since he’s a boy, and he can go into the stadium and do whatever he wants. But he’s not an enemy. He lets her run by him, he makes room for her. It’s her right to run, it’s her right to try to see the game. Beautifully played.
One of the girls (the girl mentioned above in the bathroom) is a jock – she’s played by Ayda Sadeqi. She plays soccer herself, on a women’s league. She is involved in the most surreal section of the film – the section which I felt was most openly angry, when she has to go to the bathroom – so a guard is elected to take her to the nearest men’s room (no women’s rooms at all in the stadium) – and he has to clear the men’s room out first, and he makes her wear a poster over her head with the face of a soccer star on it – so that no one will see she’s a girl. So to see her tripping along next to the guard, wearing a man’s face over her own … It is a powerful statement of how insane the rules are. It is a denial of her humanity. Panahi said, about that particular scene – that by putting the man’s face over her own – it is his way of showing that women are forced to deny their sexuality, in the current culture. She is a girl. She is also a jock. She loves soccer. She is as big a fan as all the boys raging around her. But she doesn’t get to see the game. It is absurd. And when she has to go to the bathroom, the most universal of human acts, she has to wear a poster of a man’s face over her own. Damn, that’s good stuff. Bravo.
There is one girl (she was my favorite – she is so alive, so expressive!) who has the colors of Iran painted across her face – she’s played by Golnaz Farmani, and she had actually come to the stadium that day with her best friend. Her best friend managed to get in, but she was busted. She is taken to the pen. Later, the father of the best friend – who has learned of the girl’s plans to sneak into the stadium, comes looking for his daughter. He scans the faces in the pen – and then sees the face of his daughter’s best friend. He goes into a rage and reaches out to hit her, and all of the girls (as well as the main guard) intervene. She is frightened, reaches in her backpack, and slowly puts on her chador, obliterating her individuality. She is ashamed, ashamed of herself for being “unwomanly” – in boys clothes … but then, as the soccer game heats up – she slowly starts to lose her mind – and watching her respond to the play-by-play on the radio is like watching a replay of all of us Red Sox fans in the bar on October 27, 2004. She believes in wearing the chador, she is ashamed in the face of the condemnation of her friend’s father … but then, by the end, she stops caring, and there she is, leaping around in her full veil, jumping up and down screaming at the top of her lungs, pumping her fists in the air, gesturing like crazy for everyone to shut up so she can hear the radio … Awesome character. I loved her.
Then there is a younger girl played by Nazanin Sediq-zadeh, she’s maybe 14 or 15 years old. She rarely smiles, she is so tense and into the game. But she also knows her parents are going to FREAK, especially since she was busted – and now she has to go off in the Vice Squad van to be interrogated, with nary a phone call home. She is panicking. Her parents will worry when she doesn’t come home. When we first meet her, she is sitting on the ground in the pen, crying. The other girls, who are all in college, tell her to stop being a baby, and she does. A real growing-up moment for her.
And lastly, there is the girl who dresses up as a soldier, and actually made it to the official stand, where all the big-wigs in the regime sit to watch the game. Her one error is that she sat in the officer’s seat. She stretched her legs out, lackadaisacal, comfortable, like, “Ho hum, I’m just a dude in the army, here to see a soccer game” … and the officer saw her and didn’t at first register that it was a girl. He was more concerned that she was in his seat. So she’s hauled off to the pen. Her offense is seen as more serious, because she dressed up in an army uniform, so she is the only one in handcuffs. She’s a great character, a tall lean Olive Oyl type … she’s led up to the pen, and one of the guards walks over to her, and she gives him a goofy parody of a salute. He is not amused.
An added element to Offside is the 2 or 3 guards watching over the girls. Most of them are not from Tehran – they hail from Tabriz or Mashad or Azerbaijan – a totally different culture, more rural first of all – and one of them, the main guy, played by Safdar Samandar, is pissed at his assignment away from his family. There’s a drought at home, his mother is sick, and his cow is dying. He feels responsible for those things, and is furious that he is stuck guarding these hooligan Tehrani tomboys. And the girls don’t make things easier on him by making fun of him, shouting at him, and when he tries to be serious and angry with them, many times they burst into laughter right in his face. It shows, subtly, the divide between urban sophistication and rural conservative values – which takes place in every culture everywhere. The guards are the ones in uniform, they are the ones in charge, but they barely have control over these girls. The point is made clear that these guys assigned to guard the stadium are not part of the ruling regime. They are not mullahs. They are grown-up boys in an army uniform, and they, too, are pissed that they are missing the momentous game. They try to be official and stern with the girls, who get more and more rowdy as the game goes on … but it’s a losing battle, because they, too, are caught – in a culture that isn’t quite fair … they start to feel the meaninglessness of this assignment – and there are a couple of great shots of the guards standing outside the pen (the camera never ever goes inside the pen with the girls, by the way – very nice symbolic touch) – looking in at the girls, who are all laughing, and cheering, and talking – and at one point re-enacting a play that one of them saw. And the guards don’t say anything, but you can feel that – I guess what I could feel from them was that they were thinking, “What on earth is so wrong with girls going in the stadium? They’re soccer fans, just like us.”
They don’t SAY that, and many of them parrot the same old tired lines, which the girls pooh-pooh. “Men swear in the stadium! You can’t hear swears!” That’s the main one. Meanwhile, the lead girl swears like a truck driver, stalking around smoking in the pen, saying, on occasion, “This is BULLSHIT.”
It’s great fun. It’s a serious issue, naturally – but the way it’s handled in Offside is so much fun. They’re all likable, they all have flaws, they’re not always nice, or polite … but they have one thing in common: they are soccer fans, and they are out of their minds at the prospect of Iran going to the World Cup.
Panahi thinks that soccer is an excellent metaphor to be used in Iranian films – because it’s a way for the populace to let steam off, in a government-approved way … and when you’re there, in the crowd, it’s so loud and crazy that you can say whatever you want. You can shout, “FUCK THE MULLAHS” and nobody would be likely to hear you in the roar. It’s freedom.
Afshin Molavi wrote in his wonderful book The Soul of Iran:
Franklin Foer of the New Republic wrote a great book,
How Soccer Explains the World. In it, he referred to Iran’s “football revolution,” the moment in 1997 when some 5,000 Iranian women defied a ban on entering the stadium, and literally stormed the gates to join 120,000 screaming men in celebration of Iran’s just-returned soccer stars, who had qualified for the World Cup. Foer accurately sensed an important marker in Iranian history, one that led to a series of more soccer-related political demonstrations over the next few years.
When Iran defeated the United States in a World Cup soccer match in 1998, the country exploded in celebration and the Islamic Republic found itself in a bind. The Great Satan had been defeated, but the popular celebrations on that night challenged hard-line government orthodoxy. Women danced with men in public, people threw firecrackers at the police, and many chanted slogans against regime hard-liners.
Often after big matches, young men – unemployed and angry – vandalize government property while chanting crude slogans about the opposing team and, occasionally, their own leaders. In 2001, a few thousand Iranians, incensed by rumors that the team purposefully lost a key World Cup qualifying game by government order, clashed with police while chanting antigovernment slogans. Though the rumor – fueld by diaspora television stations – is unlikely to be true, the national team displayed a striking inability to beat lesser teams during the qualifying stretch and failed to make the 2002 Cup. In a sense, the team’s soccer malaise mirrored the country’s political malaise, as hard-liners tightened their grip on power and the country’s reformists took a beating without much of a fight.
Reminds me a bit of the late great Ryzsard Kapuscinski’s essay “The Soccer War” (excerpt here).
Soccer: a way to express nationalism in a way that seems “safe” to regimes that fear their own populace. Yet very often, it is NOT safe, and the regimes find themselves having to do battle against their own athletes, trying to control the sport, and therefore the population. Don’t get TOO happy … remember who’s in charge here!!
That struggle, that inner conflict – exists in the guards in Offside – who aren’t mullahs or bureaucrats … but they represent the law, obviously, and they do their best to uphold it.
And yet something wonderful happens near the end of the film. The game isn’t over yet – there’s a little bit left to go – and the girls are hauled into the Vice Squad van, and taken off to God knows where, to be interrogated, arrested, whatever. The funny thing, though, is that none of them seem to care about that. They are just pissed that they’re missing the end of the game.
Not even just pissed. They are devastated, antsy, frustrated. They peer out the windows of the van, trying to see televisions in passing delis and houses – trying to get a vibe on what is going on. Finally, the main guard – the one who has been most tormented and angry – caves – and turns on the radio. Sadly, the antenna is broken. So this guard – this guy who is hauling the girls off to Vice Jail or wherever they are going – hangs out the window of the van, propping the antenna in place, jiggering it around until they get reception. You can hear the girls all shout encouragement, as one, from the back. Reception comes in – all the girls shout, “Yes! Yes! Stop there! That’s it!” He jiggles it a bit more, and suddenly there is static and you can hear all the girls shout, “No!! No! Turn it back, turn it back!” And he obeys! You know why? Cause he wants to hear the end of the game, too.
The last 10 minutes of the film just made me smile, ear to ear. There is an unbroken shot of the girls crowded in the back of the van, listening to the game on the radio. There is also a boy in the Vice Squad van, who was busted for having firecrackers – and at first nobody likes him … he makes the mistake of referring to the lead girl as a “chick” and she stands up, walks down the aisle of the van – and head-butts him. Literally! Butts him with her head so hard he falls down! But they eventually make up and finally, as the van careens through the highways of Tehran, they all settle down to listen to the radio. With the poor guard hanging out the window, holding the antenna in place. We hear the announcer giving a play by play (and it was a real game, remember – so everyone in Tehran would remember the blow-by-blow) – and the girls all react, to each play – they surge up in excitement, they subside in despair, they are on the edge of their seats – and sometimes the tension is too much that they have to just get up and switch places, for no reason. They just have to move. As it comes down to the last few seconds of the game, it is altogether too nervewracking, and the 6 girls all grab hold of one another – hugging onto each other, gripping each other’s arms and hands – listening so hard to the radio it is like their SKIN is listening. Marvelous. It’s SO fun to watch all of them! And when Iran wins (and again, this is no spoiler – since it was an actual game, and made headlines around the world) – everyone just goes APESHIT. I found myself clapping and laughing FOR them as I watched them scream and hug and cry.
Look at their faces in this series of screenshots. Look at what they’re going through – collectively and as individuals! I loved watching all of them. They make me laugh.
The film is about participation, obviously. Watching the girls scream out the windows of the van, waving at their celebrating countrymen, waving sparklers, screaming, clapping … abandoned, free, insane … you can see their desire to just participate.
That’s all. Not to take over, or displace the men, or try to be men. If they could go to the stadium in their chadors, they would. They would rather be women. But desperate times call for desperate measures. These girls aren’t radical revolutionaries or political dissidents or intellectual troublemakers. What they are are soccer fans.
And so. A girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do.