Some directors in the West feel the need to impose artificial limitations on their process of filmmaking, despite having unparalleled artistic freedom. Iranian director Jafar Panahi resides in a nation where very real limitations to filmmaking exist. Freedom of speech ranks low among the priorities of the Islamist government of Iran, to say the least. Nor could women's rights be accurately described as pre-eminent to its plans.
A bit of subterfuge and finagling was, therefore, required for Panahi to complete his latest project, Offside. A riveting film, it is deceptively simple in surface structure. Offside is about several teenage girls who disguise themselves as boys and try to sneak into the qualifying match of the 2004 World Cup. Panahi simply told authorities that the film was about boys, not girls, and then, on the day of the shoot, he pulled a switcheroo.
Besides bureaucratic annoyances, Offside has an interesting construction. It's a documentary with actors and, conversely, a fictional film shot within real happenings. Much of the filming was done with inconspicuous digital cameras on the actual day of the qualifying match, which was against Bahrain and took place in Tehran. Though the story was partially planned, a great deal of it depended on the outcome of the match. The cast of non-professional actors had some preparation, but were given scenarios and prompted to improvise along the way. The result is a frenetic tension, from the legal danger, from the improvisation, from the surging, chaotic crowd and from the unknown outcome of the game.
But the match is not only the setting for Offside; it also serves as an organizing analogy. An "offside" in soccer occurs when a member of one team is penalized for passing the ball past an imaginary line that transects the field at whatever point the last defender stands. The title thus directs the audience toward the arbitrary nature of the rules in Iranian society that establish artificial and imaginary boundaries. Panahi intertwines this metaphor of sport-opposing teams, rules and trespass-because he wants to obliterate a social reality that allows this metaphor to map onto itself so efficiently.
Panahi also exposes these devastating and arbitrary boundaries through constricted camera work. The camera's purview, and thus the audience's, is as much a prisoner of the barriers as the people in the film. When the girls, caught and penned, can only hear the game but cannot see it, the same is true for the audience. The result is a certain discomfort; an unconscious empathy for the frustration caused from belonging to an excluded segment
Though Offside was banned in Iran, bootleg DVDs circulated surreptitiously. As the fallout from these DVDs traversed Iran, the country's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, moved to immediately normalize the attendance of women at events like soccer matches. The move backfired; the Islamic leadership reacted by outlawing such activities for women outright.
In his novel Mao II, Don DeLillo argues, through one of his characters, that terrorism has replaced art in its ability to capture the public's attention and cause discernable ripples through society. It is interesting, if not ironic, that it is in Iran, the country increasingly (and worryingly) associated with "sponsoring terrorism," where this overtaking has not yet occurred.
Directed by Jafar Panahi
Written by Jafar Panahi and Shadmehr Rastin
With Sima Mobarak-Shahi, Shavesteh Irani and Ayda Sadeqi