OffsideReviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 09/12/07 11:30:32
Jafar Panahi’s brutal “The Circle” was a somber treatise on gender roles in Iran. We watched as women were routinely punished in one way or another simply for being female. Years later, Panahi returns to those themes, this time taking a much lighter approach: “Offside” uses breezy comedy to lampoon the ridiculousness of a rule that bans women from sporting arenas, on the premise that men curse when watching football, and women shouldn’t have to hear such things.Like “The Circle,” “Offside” was banned in its native country (although, according to an interview with Panahi, the film was widely distributed in bootleg form) for poking a little too closely. The events in this film reach absurdist heights that would make Kafka proud, yet we are quick to remember that there is nothing exaggerated about what we see here. It’s the sort of satire where reality is its own punchline.
It’s June 5, 2005, and Iran’s football team is facing off against Bahrain in a World Cup qualifying match. (Oh, the excitement of soccer: a 0-0 tie, which would put Iran forward in the tournament, is considered a preferable option. But I kid the world’s most popular sport.) During the game, soldiers working security detail discover a young woman hoping to sneak in disguised as a man. She’s taken to a makeshift holding pen - just a couple traffic barricades, really - where all women go until the vice squad can pick them up. There she meets others in the same predicament, and as the story progresses, we meet even more, including one done up in a soldier’s uniform (her giveaway: she didn’t make herself a high enough rank to excuse her sneaking into a high class corner of the stadium).
And then they wait, and wait, and wait. They try to listen to the game that’s going on just out of sight, and one soldiers provides them with a play-by-play. They cheer the victories and lament the setbacks. Like any serious fan, they spend most of their time lamenting their team’s problems and arguing over which teammate is still worthy of praise. In a way, “Offside” is a simple movie about the joys and agonies of sports fandom; one great sequence late in the film gives us no dialogue, just a shot of the women as they listen in on the game with tense seriousness, and such a moment translates around the world.
As the day continues, it becomes clear that the soldiers, merely counting down the days remaining in their mandatory military service, have little desire to be stuck on this duty, nor do they really agree with having to keep the women prisoner in the first place. They’re just following orders, anxious to pass along the women so they can be someone else’s problem. When one soldier argues with one of the women, the argument quickly evolves into one about the game, suggesting that he’s only half-heartedly in step with the rules.
Of course, the soldiers being young men and the prisoners being young women, there might just be some mutual attraction going on here, although the flirtations are kept to a minimum. A greater connection comes with their mutual love for the sport. The story’s final act takes place in a van, as the vice squad finally comes to pick up the women and take them to headquarters; one officer leans out the window to make sure the radio antenna can pick up the rest of the game, and when one woman makes an unreasonable request for a drink, he obliges, buying a round for everyone, in celebration of an impending victory.
It’s been said that in nations like Iran, a new young generation is warming to the idea of a more inclusive society. “Offside” shows a hint of such feelings, not really spoken aloud, but definitely acted upon when given the chance. The soldiers obviously have no problems with the women around them, and it’s easy to see that everyone in that van would agree to a little loosening of the rules. “Offside” doesn’t merely challenge the status quo - it reveals that throughout the nation, the status quo is already starting to crumble, if only a little.
While the cast is completely believable and their story thoroughly compelling, it’s Panahi’s filmmaking trickery that elevates “Offside” to something truly special. The filmmaker shot on video to circumvent some governmental red tape that otherwise would have blocked him from making his movie; the decision wound up providing him with greater freedom, the smaller cameras offering a greater flexibility in the hows and wheres of shooting. All of the film’s crowd scenes were filmed in one day: June 5, 2005, the day of the big game. Several scenes were filmed inside Azadi Stadium, with glances of the actual game coming through every now and then. The movie’s finale, showcasing a wild post-game party in the streets, was also filmed that day. All the extras you see are genuine people giving genuine reactions to a genuine event. Panahi and his cast and crew then filmed extra footage in the weeks that followed, using recordings of the game to make the whole project seamless. The story unfolds in real time, from the start to the end of the match, and there’s not one moment that doesn’t feel like part of that day.
Most of this is due to Panahi’s excellent use of long, unbroken takes that leave us feeling as if time is unfolding before us without any cinematic interference. These long shots are breathtaking (often because it’s not until late in the shot that you realize, wait a second, we haven’t cut away yet), granting the cast room to play with the characters and their interactions. The finest such moment is a ballet of the insanity of authority: when one woman has to go to the bathroom, a soldier orders that she must wear a poster over her face (so other men don’t see she’s a woman, and so she doesn’t read the vulgar graffiti on the stall doors), and his growing fight to keep men out of their own restroom (there are obviously no ladies’ rooms in the stadium) reaches several breaking points.It’s the finishing touch on a phenomenal work. “Offside” reveals to an outside world that Iran stubbornly remains a repressive society, but, perhaps, it’s a society ready to burst with change. Around this, Panahi sprinkles a glorious love for the community that sports fandom provides as well as a biting satire on the sort of bureaucratic nonsense to which all of us can relate.
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