As is often the case with Iranian cinema, the premise of Jafar Panahi’s Offside, as the title itself expresses, is a simple but unusual one, which is that in Iran, women are not allowed to go and watch a live football match. There is of course no restriction on women watching football on television, nor is there even any strict ruling or law that actually prevents them from entering a football stadium, but the ban is nonetheless enforced by the men themselves. It’s the absurdity of the situation and the consequent mistreatment of women that Panahi exploits in his film to absurd and humorous effect.
In his remarkable 2000 film The Circle, Panahi showed the consequences of a group of Iranian women behaving as if they had the same freedom as men and being subjected to a form of oppression not so much by the laws of the state as by the conservative religious and patriarchal nature of their own families. Essentially, it is the same sense of over-protectiveness and notions of dishonour that prevent women from going to watch a football match in Iran. An old blind man on the way to the stadium on the bus expresses just why he goes to watch the match, as opposed to watching it on television – “You can curse and swear at everyone, say whatever you like and no one bothers you”. For the Iranian man it’s a taste of freedom of expression and overstepping boundaries that he could not do in real life. It’s ostensibly for this same reason that women are not allowed in to a football stadium to watch a match, lest they be subjected to the unrestrained language and behaviour of the excited football fans. This doesn’t prevent a number of female football fans from attempting to get in to see the qualifying match between Iran and Bahrain, the result of which would see Iran qualify for the World Cup Finals in Germany 2006. Captured and corralled into a pen outside the stadium by reluctant conscript troops, the captured girls ironically use some choice language that would make any of the men inside the stadium blush.
In true Iranian style, Offside is filmed in almost documentary fashion, making use of non-professional actors, all the more to depict the reality of people in real situations. Like The Circle it is brilliantly and appropriately constructed, taking place in more or less real-time over the length a football match and consisting of two distinct halves. In the first half, the girls are held outside the stadium, arguing with their captors, listening eagerly to the running commentary provided by one of the troops. The second half takes place entirely within the interior of the bus that is transporting the girls to the Vice Squad for their crime of dressing like boys in order to sneak into the stadium. It doesn’t sound like a classically dramatic situation and indeed the film does lack conventional narrative drive. The premise moreover is simple, the targets are obvious and the moral predicated, but the film has many other qualities, including style, a sense of occasion, humour and irony that effectively highlights the inconsistencies and absurdities of the treatment of women.
“Why do you do this for football? It’s not a life or death matter.”, asks one of the troops, a victim of the situation himself, since he would rather be home with his family working on the land rather than worrying about what would happen should one of these girls escape into the stadium. But for these girls, football is, to paraphrase Bill Shankley, more important than that. It’s about freedom and equality, of belonging and partaking in a shared experience, an experience Panahi is fortuitous to capture in the actual result of the match that sees Iran’s 1-0 victory over Bahrain take their country into the World Cup Final. For the women, the result is heard only over a radio broadcast and the celebration, dancing and singing that explodes on the streets can only be seen by from their captivity on a bus. Ironically, the victory that takes their team into a wider global sporting celebration is a world from which these Iranian women are even more excluded.
Offside is released in the UK by Artificial Eye. The DVD is in PAL format and is encoded for Region 2.
Running to 87 minutes, Offside isn’t a long film, and with no substantial extra features, the film is easily accommodated on a single-layer disc. The picture quality is excellent, almost flawless. The image is clear, sharp and detailed, free from any marks whatsoever, with rich colours – the Iranian colours of green and red feature heavily on flags and face paint – and deep satisfying blacks. Other than a very slight blurring in movement, there are no noticeable issues with compression artefacts and there are no signs of edge-enhancement.
The audio track is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0, which is more than adequate for the film, even though the credits advertise a theatrical DTS mix of the film. The film is mostly dialogue based, but it does open out in various stadium locations with force and reverberation, as well as in the celebratory scenes at the end of the film.
English subtitles are provided in a clear, white font and are optional.
Promotional material for this release promised an interview with the director – and they do usually come almost as standard on Artificial Eye releases - but this was not present on the checkdisc DVD provided. The extras consist, as in the early days of Artificial Eye releases, solely of text based information - Jafar Panahi, the Director contains a brief outline and filmography for the director works, while the Production Notes provide most detail on the making of the film. Although text-based, this is nonetheless highly informative, covering the initial inspiration behind the film as coming from personal experiences and an incident at a match between Iran and Japan where 7 people were killed in a crowd crush (an incident referred to in the film), one of them believed to be a girl who had sneaked into the match. The director also discusses the ambiguity of the Iranian laws on the matter and his hopes that the film might one day be shown in his home country. If not officially banned, Panahi’s films are simply just not shown in Iran.
The simple premise and the lack of a conventional dramatic structure might make Offside seem a little worthy, serious and predictable women’s rights drama, reworking many of the themes of Panahi’s earlier film The Circle - but for all the seriousness of its message, the film is actually steeped in irony and humour. Most importantly, it is vital cinema that has a point to make about those who wish to live and express themselves freely and would appear to do no harm other than wishing to be faithful fans of their national football team. Filming on location using non-professional actors, Panahi takes a chance not only on the outcome of a real football match meeting dramatic requirements, but also on the risks associated with making a film that challenges accepted political and social rules of behaviour in Iran. Offside is further evidence, if any were needed, that Iranian cinema is just about the most vital, challenging and progressive in the world.