Monday, August 2, 2021


OFFSIDE (2007)

Director: Jafar Panahi
Screenplay: Jafar Panahi and Shadmehr Rastin

I write this Canon of Film post in the middle of the COVID-19 Pandemic in the United States and one of the things we're missing the most is sports. If you're not a sports fan yourself, I'm sure you know one and the majority of them are quite frustrated at this point. I'm in both those categories myself, and I can tell you that, it is tough. Most of the major leagues are trying to purportedly get things rolling again, in some sports cases to finish or start new seasons, and, honestly, I'm not holding my breath on this one; we're not getting sports the way we know it, for a long while. That's a real shame to, 'cause sports would both make a great distraction from, well, everything at the moment, but it also has an uncanny way of bringing together communities, cities, schools, even nations. Even under the worst of circumstances, it represents some of the best examples of, what is sometimes literal or figurative nationalism, in all the best ways. On top of that, there's a lot to like about sports. A lot of great drama, conflict, strategy, the amazing human performances, the pageantry, the spectacle, there's a lot of appeal to sports, and a lot of it is missing right now.

So, yeah, that's probably why I personally feel like a movie about a bunch of people not watching a sporting event would appeal to me right now, but of course, that context is much more my selfishness then anything to do with the film.

From my experience, I think the best foreign countries' films comes when they're movies are essentially relatively basic and simplistic in their approach to storytelling. Part of this admittedly is just, well the fact that I'm a dumb and ignorant American, so that automatically will just make it easier for me to follow, but with some of the Middle Eastern countries' cinema in particular, there's also a lot of power in those stories because, well, honestly, because of their "leaders," a lot of those countries have never gotten the memo to come to the 21st Century. Iran is one of those countries; the more universal the story is in an Iranian, usually, the better it is, and the more it often underlines some of the absurdities and troubles of the Islamic Republic.

Honestly, that's not terribly unusual for any country, once they go through their neorealist New Wave period, but Iranian New Wave, to put it lightly, is different then others and I'd argue nobody in the movement does it better then Jafar Panahi. There's a lot to talk about with him in particular, the big thing that most people know about him is that currently, he's banned from filmmaking. In 2010, he was sentenced to six years house imprisonment, after that, he's not able to leave the country of Iran except for celebrating certain religious rituals, and he's currently halfway into his 20-YEAR BAN from making movies. Yeah, don't think that's stopped him; he's actually managed to make five features and several short films since that banishment, that is still as of this writing, in effect. I've seen a couple of those films that he's made while in banishment, they're probably future entries into this Canon, but I can't say they're always the most entertaining; it's usually more the fact that they got made at all that's astonishing, expert filmmaking. Although, like most of his other films, they're obviously banned in Iran, although if he's managing to make movies like these under those circumstances, I'm sure many of the Irani citizens can managed to find ways to watch them.

I'd probably pick one of his other movies in another time to begin adding Iranian cinema to the Canon; I don't really know how high this one ranks among Panahi's films for most people. but it's been on my mind. (Plus, it's a DVD day, and since I can't go to the library right now, either, I've pulled from my own collection on this one, and it's the only film of his I've got a copy of.) The movie was shot mostly during a major World Cup qualification match between Iran and Bahrain in '06 at Azadi Stadium, a match that, with a win or tie, Iraq would qualify for the World Cup, and follows a group of women who tried to go to the game, but were caught, and the National Service men who have to keep an eye on them during the game, for fear that the Chief might come by. Women at that time, weren't allowed to enter the stadium for a sporting event.

That's basically it. There's a little square, "cell" that's flimsily put together with guard rails that aren't that hard to get out of. One of the girls, the one who's only described as "Soccer Girl" in the credits (Ayda Sadeqi) has to go to the bathroom at one point, and that's the most drama that occurs. There's no girls bathroom in the stadium, so her and the Soldier from Mashad (Mohammad Keir-Abadi), who they've been arguing about over a player that he's a fan of for most of the whole movie up 'til then, has to go through a fairly ridiculous process of putting a poster with eyes cut out on the girl's face, while he's closing the bathroom from the male customers, who keep coming in. He ends up losing her as she escapes in a melee, but she came back later, worried about the other soldier's (Safdar Samander) farm. If the soldiers lose one girl that's caught, they could be reprimanded pretty severely. The soldiers are conscripted, so they're more worried about not getting into trouble and getting forced into extra years of service, or worst.

They're already going to Vice Squad for their actions, which of course nobody actually cares about whether women are in the stadium. The girls keep asking why they're not allowed in, and the soldiers keep trying to explain why they're not allowed to go, but most of the Soldier's don't care either. They're aware that there's already a bunch of women in the crowd. We see the First Girl (Simra Mobarak-Shahi) in the beginning, trying and failing badly at blending in, and that's contrasted with others on a bus of fans who you'd have to look really hard to notice that they're women at all. She also gets confronted at one point by an older man, Shxyxn (Mohamad Asarian) who's looking for his own daughter who's her best friend. He doesnt' even recognize her without her chador on at first, but is angry that his daughter's somewhere in the stadium and can't find her, even though there's probably nothing to worry about, although he's annoyed that she lied about going to school to see the game.


Panahi, even before he got banned and put under house arrest, made movies about restrictions, particularly the restrictions of women in the country. In some ways, I think I prefer "Offside" to some of his other films because of how simple and inevitable it is. It's one of those weird movie ideas that feels like it's been around forever, even the title is just so naturally dead-on-the-nose you'd swear it must've been used before, and yet, it's shockingly modern. They have held women's sports events at that stadium in recent years, but currently the rule's still in place if there's "unrelated men" in the stadium with them. Yeah, I don't get it, and clearly Iran doesn't like self-criticism and yet, once the game ends, this restrictive country with outdated rules and ideas about men and women, starts to just celebrate joyously. 

This films feels especially odd in a country like mine, where we're actually quite proud of our National Womens Soccer team, while at the same time they're fighting for equality, including equal pay with the perennially disappointment Mens' team, and yet, Soccer Girl is basically even more of a revolutionary when she talks about the fact that she plays in a local grassroots Womens league. Those do exist in Iran, btw, despite on a global stage the apparent lack of female athletes they seem to produce, but I can imagine that kind of talk alone shocking and annoying some over there.

It's actually kinda surreal to think about; in America, we celebrate our Women's team more then the Men, an extreme rarity in American team sports, while just the fact that women are playing at all, is like an achievement over there. It's not portrayed that way though, it's actually kinda subtlety brought up and nobody's particularly annoyed or frustrated by that revelation. The restrictions are just part of the daily life they have to traverse over there while otherwise, life goes on. It's a revolutionary grand protest in abstraction, but it's a legal annoyance in practice.   

At the end of the movie, they're boarded a bus to Vice Squad to be arraigned, and they're listening to Iran win on the radio, and the country suddenly turns into a riotous celebration. Only two people aren't outwardly celebrating, one of them is the Azerbaijani soldier, who just cares about getting back to his farm, and the other strangely is the First Girl we followed. She actually starts crying afterwards, and it's here where we learn that she wasn't a futbol fan. 

Her best friend was though. On March 25, 2005. the year before "Offside", a World Cup qualifying match between Iran and Japan at Azadi Stadium ended in tragedy after there was a horrific crush after the game when purportedly, people tried to exit the stadium through an unauthorized exit. In the melee and riots, six people were killed and over 40 were injured. Her friend was among the dead and she was going to the game in honor and memory of him.

Like I said, sports is so ubiquitous that even non-sports fan can get caught up in the accomplishments of, your team, when they do well. 

The movie ends with literal fireworks and the bus getting caught up by the celebration in the streets. "Offside" manages to get this, in a perfect matter-of-fact simple way, it criticizes the country and then its simultaneously celebrating the people of the nation. Those who live with the restrictions put upon them and yet still happy and proud of themselves. You rarely see anybody worried about themselves in the film, even the one Soldier Girl (Mahnaz Zabihi) who's in more trouble then the rest because she disguised herself as an officer to get into the game. She's somewhat worried, but even that fear fades.

I fear I'm making this movie feel somber and like a heavy-handed lesson on the heartships of places that aren't where we're at, but the movie much funnier and full of wit then I'm letting on. Even with every other conversation underlining how absurd the situation they're it, it's a punch of sports fans talking about sports while a game is going on. They share in the drama of the moment and the camraderie of the shared experience. You don't see too many movies about sports fan in general, and usually if you do, it's either about how unhealthy it is, or the fan learns that there's something more important then sports, and being in the film world I usually find most fans should belong in one of those, but this one, it's about everything good about being a fan. Appreciation the team, appreciation the country they and often you yourself represent, and appreciating each other. 

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