Directed by Jafar Panahi. 2006.

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In Iran women are prohibited from attending live sporting events because of the fear that they will be "corrupted" by bad language, close proximity to thousands of men, and the fact that there are no toilet facilities for women in the antiquated stadiums. Based on an actual incident involving the daughter of the director, Jafar Panahi's Offside follows six girls, disguised as men, who are refused entry into the soccer match in 2005 between Iran and Bahrain, a match that will decide whether or not Iran goes to the World Cup. In a departure from the bleak, minimalist films we have been accustomed to from Iran over the last ten years, Offside is an exuberant comedy that has a patriotic fervor and a universal appeal but contains enough subversive social commentary to warrant its prohibition from screenings in Iran.  

Shot with a digital camera using non-professional actors who are more than up to the task, the girls try to sneak into Azadi Stadium in Tehran but are arrested and placed in a holding area outside of the stadium. They are guarded by three young army conscripts (Safdar Samandar, Mohammed Kheir-abadi, and Masoud Kheymeh-kaboud) who express ambivalence about their task but are pledged to follow the rules. The women are soccer enthusiasts, not political activists and cheer for Iran's victory but this does not deter the soldiers from detaining them while they wait for the girls to be transported to the Vice Squad and an uncertain future. 

Outspoken rather than acting like victims, they continually question the soldiers about the rationale behind the restrictions, making their absurdity quite obvious. Although they can hear the crowd noise, the women cannot see the action but achieve a minor victory when they persuade one of the soldiers to provide a running commentary on the game. One of the funniest sequences takes place when a female "prisoner" is escorted to the men's room by a soldier. The young recruit then must cope with a near riot when he has to prevent anyone else from using the facilities while the girl is still inside.  

Little by little, to paraphrase Adlai Stevenson, that which unites them turns out to be greater than that which divides them and the unlikely antagonists rally behind their country and root for the victory that will send Iran to the World Cup. Although the point is made early and often and the film sags a bit in the middle, Offside makes a telling point about a society where a political elite with a medieval social mentality has to contend with an growing group of educated and politically astute citizens. One can only hope that world pressure and the awakening of its own people will force the Ayatollahs to come to terms with the 21st century.  


Seen at the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF)

Howard Schumann
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