Jafar Panahi’s Offside (2006) is set during Iran’s World-Cup qualifying match with Bahrain in 2006 and concerns the plight of several young women fans who desperately try to sneak into the stadium to watch the match. In Iran women are forbidden from attending stadia with men to watch sporting events. This sounds like the film is going to be a comedy, and, indeed, that’s the way it is advertised and perceived by many people. But in fact it is a brilliant commentary on society, particularly Iranian society, and is a worthy followup to Panahi’s masterwork, The Circle (2000). With this work, in which he regains his stride from some missteps in Crimson Gold (2003), the true measure of Panahi’s genius has come into full light. He has now taken over the reins of the neo-realist film movement begun in Italy some sixty years ago and established himself as the preeminent practitioner.
The beginning of the film shows a girl dressed as a boy, trying to get past the guards and enter the stadium. She is soon apprehended by the security personnel and directed to a pen outside the stadium walls, where other girls in similar circumstances have been collected. In a short while there are six soccer-loving young women being held in the pen. The pen is attended and guarded by three young soldiers fulfilling their national service requirements. Since two of the soldiers are from the provincial areas of Mashad and Tabriz and the girls are from the more sophisticated metropolis of Tehran, a certain amount of social game-playing soon develops between the girls and the men. Interestingly, these city girls are not only more street-wise than their captors, they also seem to know more about soccer. "Why are girls banned from soccer matches?”, one of the cheekier girls asks a guard. He answers, as if reciting from a formula, that it is to protect women from the foul language of the uncouth men. But when the Japanese team came to play Iran, the cheeky girl continues, Japanese women were allowed to attend the match; what about that? The back-and-forth argument continues for awhile in this vein, and it becomes clear that these young men don’t really know, themselves, why there should be such a ban. As in Panahi's earlier films, the soldiers enforcing the law are relatively innocent and basically human -- they are just trying to do their jobs according to the rules. It is the system, itself, that is dysfunctional. In fact in a interview subsequent to making Offside, Panahi mentioned that the religious authorities now argue that another reason for banishing woemn is to protect them from seeing the bare arms and legs of the men. What are the real reasons for these restrictions? We can all come up with our own responses, but certainly Panahi sees a social problem here that is deeper and more pernicious than simply the issue of watching a sporting event. In fact it is the same overall concern with a contemptuous view of humanity that lay behind the events of The Circle.
Offside shares some characteristics with Panahi’s previous films, The White Balloon, The Mirror, The Circle, and Crimson Gold. Again his film takes place mostly outside, sometimes on a bus, during a single day, and more or less in real time. Again his actors are non-professionals. Again women or girls are a major focus. And, again, the principal characters struggle with the general social restrictions imposed on them. And once again, Panahi’s film has been banned from being screened in Iran. The story has the appearance of a documentary, since much of it was shot at the stadium during the actual match. Using a compact digital camera for the first time, Panahi and his crew were able to blend in to the crowd surreptitiously and catch the spontaneity of the real situation. Thanks to Panahi’s skill in composing editable shots on the fly as the situation develops, the visual continuity of the film is amazingly fluid and organically believable, with all the point-of-view shots emerging naturally in the flow of images. The importance of this technical proficiency cannot be overstated. By adapting his film to the way his untrained actors operate in crowded street situations, Panahi is able to maintain his compelling narrative and, at the same time, sustain the feeling of spontaneity and authenticity.
Panahi has a refined set of aesthetic preferences that guide his filmmaking style. He prefers to have his films present a more of less real-time sequence of events in order to capture the narrative immediacy of reality. Although Offside has the appearance of having been shot in a single day, in fact, the production took 39 days to complete the filming. The craftsmanship of the camera work and editing is so seductive that we feel we are participating in a real-time, documentary event. Panahi also doesn’t like the lie that is imposed on Iranian filmmakers when they shoot women in interior settings. Filmmakers are forced to show women wearing chadors in their homes, even in the company of their immediate family members. Indeed, this is what we see in Mehrjui’s Hamoun, Leila, and Ali Santouri. But Panahi argues that this is artificial and not common practice, even among conservative families. This is one of the reasons why Panahi prefers to shoot his films on the streets.
Although the film has its humorous moments, it is useful to remember that soccer is a sport with potentially serious political overtones in Iran. The authorities in Iran, in their efforts to maintain strict controls and impose their unquestionable authority, place severe restrictions on the free assembly individuals. This prevents potentially uncontrollable congregations from arising. The concept of “flash mobs” is something new, and a phenomenon that may pose difficulties for these authorities in the future. At the present time, though, there is one type of flash mob that takes place spontaneously. When Iran wins a soccer match, the streets spontaneously overflow with people celebrating, and there is nothing that the authorities can do to stop it. It is this phenomenon at the end of the movie, after Iran has beaten Bahrain and qualified for the World Cup, that Panahi captures on film and celebrates. It is the spontaneous eruption of Iranians celebrating something of their own, their soccer team. In Offside, this celebration interrupts the police bus taking the girl "prisoners" to the Vice Squad office and leads to a more hopeful ending. Perhaps sometime in the future, with the help of the continuing efforts of people like Panahi, Iranians will be able to celebrate spontaneously other homegrown elements from their society – even their filmmakers. Certainly Panahi is now a leading voice, not only in Iranian filmmaking, but in the ongoing cultural dialogue of the world.