Offside (Panahi, 2006) is a fascinating film to watch within the context of it being a recent film which has achieved critical acclaim outside of Iran (Wilmington, 2007), but whose director has suffered censorship and oppression in his home country (Dehghan, 2010). But Offside also stands alone as an emotive and skillful piece of filmmaking.
Panahi’s story follows a group of women who doggedly attempt to attend a live football match, even though it’s illegal for them to do so. The film is based around real events and Offside has a distinct documentary style (Bradshaw, 2006). This realism was a conscious choice by Panahi, intended to create a sense of ambiguity as to whether the events that we see are real or fictional (Maruf, 2006). But I also wonder if it stems from, or is a reference to, the strong tradition of documentarianism which emerged in Iran after the Islamic revolution of 1979 (Issa, 2001).
No matter what the reasons for Panahi’s choice, it works to create an incredibly immersive film. The sense of the passing of time, which Panahi generates by shooting in almost real time as the sun sets, subsumes the audience into the location and the story. His choice to leave the film unscored, instead using the noise of the football match as an ever-present soundscape, only adds to this, lending the film an intense realness. And, despite is omnipresence in every shot of the film, we never see the match itself; we find ourselves in the same position as the women, only glimpsing the action on a TV screen in a shop the group stop at on their ride to the Vice Squad.
Something which struck me as I watched the film, especially as the first girl queues up to go through security checks on her way to the stadium, is the similarity between the position of women and that of filmmakers (and other artists) in Iran. Both are censored and oppressed, and a significant proportion of both groups employ guerrilla tactics to try to break free of this oppression, to make their voice heard. I wonder if this explains, at least in part, the relative prevalence of female filmmakers and female driven films in Iran since the Islamic revolution. Is it a result of a shared sympathy for each other’s position? Is each group using the other as an allegory for their own?
Panahi has created in Offside subtle and nuanced characters. He writes both male and female characters who exist in shades of grey, whose complex motives and beliefs are revealed through clever but unshowy dialogue. And he uses these interesting and complex characters to question Iranian society and foreign perception of it. In one scene two characters, a female fan and her male guard discuss an earlier football match between Iran and Japan. The woman notes that female Japanese fans were permitted to attend that match, so why couldn’t she? He male captor blusters that it’s not the same, because she is Iranian and the law states that Iranian women can’t attend. She retorts by questioning why the fact that she was born in Iran makes any difference. The soldier gives up, exclaiming “I’m not the boss!” (Panahi, 2006). This exchange typifies the interactions between the women who are trying to attend the match and the male soldiers who are trying to stop them. The women hold their male captors personally responsible, but the soldiers refuse to believe that it’s their fault, they see it as simply being the way that Iranian society must be.
The disagreement about where the responsibility for the oppression of women lies, whether each man is personally responsible, or whether they are simply following the rules of a higher power, is a fundamental theme of Offside. Panahi uses his characters to show how ordinary Iranian citizens are forced to interpret and enforce the laws of their county even if they don’t understand why these laws exist. And his uses these characters to explore the effects of this on both women and men.
One of the most interesting aspects of Offside is how it doesn’t solely focus on the effects of oppression on women, it also asks why men allow this oppression to continue. And the answer isn’t simply that all men are bad and will revel in patriarchy if given half a chance. The soldiers show care and consideration for their captives’ welfare, and when questioned about why the women can’t enter the stadium cite concern for the women as their reason. They are portrayed as genuinely believing that their treatment of these women is in the women’s best interests. And when another man arrives and physically attacks one of the women, the soldiers leap to her defense, raging at him for hitting a woman. In this way, Panahi forces a Western audience to question their own prejudices against Iranian society.
Indeed, Panahi refuses to paint the male characters as either villainous oppressors or virtuous heroes; instead showing them to be as controlled by the rules of their society as the women. Several of the male characters express sympathy for the women’s quest, yet feel that they cannot help them for fear of what will happen if they do; the pressure on them is as clearly telegraphed as that on the women. Towards the end of the film, a teenage boy is also arrested and rides with the women on the bus as they are taken to the Vice Squad. He tries to smoke and is told that he can’t. In response he rails at the soldiers that his father beat him, that everybody beats him, yet no one ever questions this or helps him. He rages that it’s OK to be beaten, but it’s not OK for him to smoke. This scene is a clear mirror to another scene earlier in the film when one of the women tries to smoke and is told to stop; she too points out the injustice of her treatment. Panahi shows us an Iran in which everyone lives in a climate of oppressive rule, and the ever present sound of the football match which permeates every scene seems to reference this inescapable climate of oppression.
Panahi also questions how complicit the women are in this patriarchal rule in a scene when one of the women explains to a soldier that she plays for a women’s football team. The soldier asks if men can watch them play and she retorts immediately that of course they can’t, the implication being that it would be inappropriate for men to watch women play sport. Yet Panahi does not shy away from showing that Iran’s laws fall disproportionately hard on women, and that their effect is systemic. In another scene, the soldier who escorts the first girl to the holding pen asks to use her phone. Then he makes her wait as he holds a seemingly trivial conversation on it, with no sense of urgency. That the soldier sees nothing wrong in this is a much subtler way of presenting the systemic second class status of women in Iranian society, without resorting to painting all men as ‘bad’.
At the end of the film, both the women and men escape from their bus and disperse into a crowd celebrating Iran’s victory in the match. We never discover what happens to them afterwards. That we care about this and wonder what does happen, to both the men and women, is a testament to Panahi’s skill as a writer and director, and his refusal to simplify his characters to caricatures of heroism and villainy.
Bradshaw, P., (2006) Offside, The Guardian, Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2006/jun/09/1 [Accessed on 30 March 2016]
Dehghan, S. K., (2010) Iran jails director Jafar Panahi and stops him making films for 20 years, The Guardian, Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/dec/20/iran-jails-jafar-panahi-films [Accessed on 30 March 2016]
Issa, R., (2001) Post revolution, art’s revelation, The Times Higher Education, Available from: http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/158808.article [Accessed on 30 March 2016]
Maruf, M., (2006) Offside rules: an interview with Jafar Panahi, openDemocracy, Available from: http://www.opendemocracy.net/arts-Film/offside_3620.jsp [Accessed on 30 March 2016]
Panahi, J., (2006) Offside, Jafar Panahi Film Productions
Wilmington, M., (2007) ‘Offside’ scores as political protest, entertainment, Chicago Tribune, Available from: http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2007-04-20/entertainment/0704190232_1_jafar-panahi-offside-berlin-film-festival [Accessed on 30 March 2016]