A girl goes to watch a soccer match ( “football,” if you’re not American). She buys her ticket, finds her seat, and cheers on her team. She holds her breath as the team she supports nears a goal, she groans when the enemy team scores, and when it’s all over, she goes home.
This taken-for-granted act of women across the Western world is one that women in Iran would consider a luxury, or better yet, an impossibility. Even something as simple as a woman going to a football match is forbidden, and no, it’s not because the Iranian government doesn’t want it’s women to become a bunch of tomboys shirking their feminine duty. As the country-boy soldier Samandar says in Offside, it’s because the women will “hear curses that they shouldn’t listen to.” Well, that’s his take, anyways.
Films about the Middle East can be divided into two groups: those that are made just to tell a story, like any movie in Hollywood, and those that are meant (and usually created by a Western director, or a Middle Eastern director with a rebel bent) to show the world some aspect of Middle Eastern culture, which usually means displaying the abject poverty, hopelessness or infringement on civil rights that often exists in many of these countries. However, Jafar Panahi’s film Offside is quite refreshing in that he manages to take a dig at Iran’s ludicrous civil laws and sexism without making one feel miserable. The film tackles just one offshoot or facet of sexism in Iran-the fact that women are not allowed to go to a stadium to watch a sports match-and manages to cover it with humor and lightheartedness.
The film follows the “capture” of several girls who try to sneak into the stadium for Iran’s match against Iran that will qualify it to go to the World Cup games and are quickly caught, despite the fact that they are dressed as boys. Some of the girls are so well-dressed that even the soldiers remark: “Is it a she or he?”
The lovely “boys” listening to the final minutes of the match while en route to the Vice squad:
Their soldier captors (here, gleefully celebrating when Iran beats Bahrain).
The girls, who mock the Middle Eastern stereotype that all girls are docile, quiet and “girly,” are quite the characters and pretty brave (or crazy, if one is similarly football-obsessed) considering that their actions will eventually lead them to the Vice Squad, Iran’s version of the “morality police.” During most of the film they are kept in a pen right outside the stadium walls while waiting for the Army chief to arrive, thus teasing them as they can hear the crowd roar with delight or despair. There’s “Soldier Girl” who get’s to watch the game because she dresses in a rather-authentic military uniform; “Crybaby Girl” who loses her uncle once they’re inside the stadium; “Chador-Girl”, who hides under the robe she brought when her friend’s father notices her; “Uppity Girl,” who looks very much like a boy and has quite the mouth; “SadGirl,” who tried to attend the game in testament to her friend, and “Bathroom-Girl,” who stars in the film’s arguably most comedic moment when she demands to be taken to the bathroom. Seeing that she is still recognizable as a girl, the soldiers devise for her an ingenious mask out of a fan poster:
Barely able to see where she’s walking, she’s accompanied to the men’s bathroom(after all, only men’s facilities exist!) and an ensuing melee occurs as Tehrani boys try to enter the bathroom, not knowing that a girl is inside. She runs off while her captor is preoccupied, but eventually returns to the holding pen because she felt bad for the Samandar the country soldier and the cattle he grieves about.
The barbs traded between the girls and the soldiers are intensely funny, so one can only imagine how funny the film must be to a Farsi speaker. Sure, the girls are hitting at hard, cold, and silly truths–“So if I was born in Japan I could attend the match? I was born in the wrong country?”–but the actors are so great that the film is highly enjoyable
What makes the film so natural and both funny and serious at the same time is that it is realistic. Sure, the characters spar fighting words at times, but the “debate” that goes on is a natural one; in “real life” (as opposed to Hollywood) this is how the scene would play out. The girls haven’t analyzed their points to perfection, complete with passionate speeches, and the boys aren’t stereotypically cruel and ignorant, nor are they stereo-typically charitable.
The final scene, one might say, is pure Hollywood, in that Iran wins the match and in the ensuing pandemonium on the street, the bus transporting the girls (and a firecracker-addicted male youth) stops and when the soldiers get out, the girls make a dash for it. One could almost say that it’s a cheesy perfect ending, except for one factor: apparently, the movie was actually filmed during a real-life match, which meant that the director had two outcomes in mind.
Docu-drama? “Real” fiction? However you want to peg Offside, one adjective should always be used: one-of-a-kind!
1. Offside on Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gbc5Fgvc1ko