Jailed for watching football

Laura Schwartz reviews Offside, directed by Jafar Panahi

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad recently ruled that women would finally be allowed into the stadiums of football-mad Iran. When “supreme leader” Ayatollah Khamenei overturned this ruling on the grounds that it was un-Islamic for women to look at the uncovered arms and legs of male players, angry women football fans stormed the Azadi stadium in Tehran. Offside has been banned in its own country for its portrayal of this surreal mixture of football and fundamentalism.

Jafar Panahi was inspired to make the film when his own daughter succeeded in obtaining entry to a match by disguising herself as a boy. Cross-dressing, and even living as men, has been a surprisingly common phenomenon throughout history for women seeking to make their way in societies which severely circumscribed opportunities for women.

Offside is a snapshot of an afternoon in which six young women risk the wrath of the religious police in order to attend Iran’s qualifying match for the World Cup. The women get caught early on, and are detained just outside the stadium whilst they await their punishment. Other women were more successful and are inside enjoying the game.

The audience experiences the football match as the women would. We catch only the occasional, tantalising glimpse of the players and we get to hear, but not join in, the cheering of the crowd. At one point their excitement over the match causes the women and the soldiers to forget their appointed roles, and the men provide their female prisoners with a running commentary of the game they are forbidden from watching.

Superbly acted and naturalistically shot, the film is fascinating in the way it portrays ordinary people wrestling with the realities of living under a theocracy. The Islamic Republic's grip is not total. There is enough “space” within Iranian society for young women to become football fans and for soldiers to sneak off to talk to their girlfriends on their mobile phones. A youth culture exists which is entirely recognisable to a western audience. But the difference is that when young people bend the rules in Iran, they face prison.

In the midst of their excitement the danger of the women’s situation doesn’t seem real to them. It is only when they are on their way to the police station that one handcuffed girl, who cleverly disguised herself in a soldier’s uniforms, begins to panic. Another only realises the reality of her situation when the army bus passes her own house, and she is not allowed to go home to her parents. She is no longer a teenager enjoying a football match, but a criminal who, by subverting strictly circumscribed sex-roles, has dangerously challenged the ideology upon which the Iranian regime is based.

As friendships develop between the male and female characters, we are offered an interesting portrait of the ways in which this oppressive ideology operates in the minds of individuals. Notions about the “proper roles” of men and women are ingrained, but also exposed as utterly illogical.

The boldest of the young women interrogates the soldiers’ commander as to why women are kept out of football matches. “There’s too much swearing”, he answers. So the swearing is the problem? “It’s wrong for men and women to sit next to each other”. So why are they allowed to go to the cinema together? The soldier insists that men and women are different but cannot explain why. Similarly, the film shows the hypocrisy of a society in which women are “protected” from the cursing of men at a football match, but arrested and brutally punished if they challenge the idea that they need such protection.

Offside is a comedy, so the film does not let the political repression which provides its backdrop detract from its entertaining story-line. Yet the characters do display an “innate thirst for freedom” — and also simply for normality — which is behind the struggles currently taking place in Iran.