A father searches anxiously for his daughter among busses and cars stopped in traffic en route to Tehran’s Azadi Stadium. It’s 2006, and like most Iranians, the girl (Sima Mobarak-Shahi) wants more than anything to see her team in the World Cup qualifying match playoff against Bahrain. But because she’s a girl, she’s denied entrance into the stadium by law. And so she’s sneaking in, dressed as a boy, hiding from her father, police, and the boys on her bus.
The girl’s fear of being discovered is such that she makes herself conspicuous, ducking her head down and remaining glued to her seat rather than participating in the excited rah-rahing of her “fellows.” When she is spotted by a boy on the bus, she begs him not to tell, her sudden rush of sadness suggesting that she’s not so much a self-assured rule-breaker as she is a bearer of cultural weight. And indeed, like the several other, mostly unnamed girl soccer fans who will make their appearances in Offside reveals, this first girl has her own story, a background that has less to do with her father (though he does persist in his search, even at Azadi) than with her sense of community, not premised on gender but on youthful aspiration and loss. She’s part of a generation that will make choices and changes in the world they know.
The girl’s arrival at the stadium provides further illustration of what she’s up against. Darting back and forth in the crowd, trying to emulate other girls she sees getting past the pat-down at the front gate, she’s so nervous that it’s clear she’ll be busted. And when she is, the film turns into something else, not a story of deception as resistance, but of full-on, loudly voiced resistance, mixed in with subtle, moving displays of vulnerability, sympathy, and affinity.
Like Jafar Panahi’s other films, Offside uses handheld mobile framing and non-professional actors to create a natural-seeming rhythm, immersing you in multiple experiences, introducing a number of characters — girls and boys — all connected by events, desires, and circumstances. Once the first girl is identified at the gate, she’s led by a young soldier to a holding pen, located just outside a door into the field and stadium seating. Here she and other detainees — along with their anxious, frustrated, and guards — can listen to the match, sometimes narrated by a soldier from Azerbaijan (Safar Samandar), who peeps inside the doorway and reports on the action like a play-by-play commentator. All equally excited when they hear the crowd’s reaction to an Iranian goal, they’re united by their love of the game they can’t see.
Safar Samandar as Azari Soldier
They’re sympathetic to a point when the Azeri solider reveals that he’s irritated to be watching over these girls when he feels he should be watching over his father’s sheep. While no one notes this troubling comparison, it’s clear enough to you; instead, they commiserate with his dissatisfaction. None of them is where he or she wants to be.
The girls find among themselves a special camaraderie, sharing a sense of outrage at their treatment and dejection at the guards’ seeming callousness. They’re not allowed inside, they’re told, because they’re not allowed to hear men using rowdy language: “Let us in,” pleads one, “We promise not to listen.” (When they recall that Japanese women were allowed into an earlier match because they would not understand Farsi, one girl is aghast: “My problem is I was born in Iran!?”) The laws serve men, in other words, so they might behave as they wish, without concern about offending a woman, framing the restrictions as if they “protect” fragile, childlike women. As the girls reveal again and again, however, they’re hardly in need of such safeguard, their own language rowdy enough and their behavior much like that of their guards: one girl surprises the soldiers when she starts smoking a cigarette, several of them know as much or more about the soccer players. And one (Ida Sadeghi) explains her particular understanding of the game by way of her own experience: “I’m a dribble queen,” she says proudly, wishing she could play against boys and really show off her skills.
Sima Mobarakm Shahi
The group is duly impressed when one detainee (Mahnaz Zabihi) arrives at the pen in handcuffs, because she was discovered in a captain’s box inside the arena, having been nervy enough to steal and wear an officer’s uniform (“Awesome!” says one girl). Most of the others wear baggy pants, caps, and Iranian flag-colored face paint, ironically disguised as the very (male) figures who would keep them out. (Also ironically, Panahi has so far been unable to come to the United States to promote his film, as his visa has been “delayed” by the freedom-loving American government; reportedly, this situation is in process.)
All this “protection” is hypocritical, as the film underscores repeatedly. When the dribble queen is eventually led to a men’s room to pee (as there are no women’s bathrooms in the stadium), the camera tracks her constant bobbing and trotting during her conversation with the guard who takes her (he suggests she wear a paper mask of a player’s face, to protect himself as the escort of a girl as much as to protect her). When, at the bathroom, a group of young men try to get inside, they’re prohibited from entering, thus protecting themselves from even seeing a girl without a veil. Their upset at the restriction soon turns physical (against the soldier), as they’re desperate to use the facility and get back to the game. Even the slightest check on their own behavior elicits aggression.
As familiar as it is, the boys’ physicality is not nearly so remarkable or alluring as the girls’ many varieties of movement. Contained for most of Offside, they appear endlessly energetic and mobile. In part this effect is achieved by camera, following their bodies as they pace, rock on their heels, or press up against the fencing, or later as they’re herded onto the bus and pass through traffic full of ecstatic fans celebrating Iran’s win. Their movement is by turns graceful and jumpy, insistent and patient.
What’s most striking about Panahi’s wonderful film is its celebration of the girls’ resilience even in the face of such organized and daunting obstacles. Vital, generous, and full of idealism, they imagine themselves into another world, where they can participate fully in all aspects of their culture, feeling deep national pride (in their soccer team, anyway), even as the nation restrains them. Sharing sadness and joy during a few short hours, the girls — and a misfit boy who is arrested for carrying firecrackers — find hope in each other.