“In fact, this oppression is on everyone, regardless of their ideologies and beliefs. They don’t allow people to express their thoughts and support the national heroes the way they like to. It doesn’t make any difference if one approves of the regime and its ideology or disapproves of it. They can’t bypass these limits, and the problem stems from this.”
— Jafar Panahi, on the thrust behind Offside
To create a nuanced, graceful political or social statement cannot be an easy task, especially when that statement is the driving force of a film. Michael Moore beats us over the head with his thesis and supporting arguments. Crash, Academy Awards and all, was as subtle as a brick to the septum.
Maybe it’s an American thing.
Offside is the latest statement film from Jafar Panahi, and once again, it displays his deft touch in making a statement without shoving it in front of the viewer. His aims are clear, and his technique is far enough from subversive that the Iranian government doesn’t give a second thought to enforcing outright bans on his movies. The difference between Offside and, say, Crash is that the ideas and the points that Panahi is trying to make are never explicitly discussed, except in those instances where those points advance the plot. Nobody talks about the fact that women aren’t allowed to watch a football match for the sake of conversation. They’re talking about it because there is actually a group of girls being held captive (in a rather loose sense of the word) outside the stadium for trying to get in and watch a football match. It’s the final World Cup qualifying match, no less, the biggest sporting event Iran has seen in some time.
How does Panahi pull off the trick of not making us feel like our intelligence is being insulted every time he makes a point? He makes it personal, and he makes it real. The latter point is probably the most impressive of his feats. The action between the time outside the Azadi stadium and the time inside the van of prisoners, Offside progresses in something approximating real time. At the beginning of the movie, we are present for the very beginning of the game, as the shy girl who’s trying to get in to a game for the first time gets squeamish at the idea of a pat-down, while the end shows us what victory can do for the collective psyche of a nation. Panahi reveals that he pulled off this real-time trickery by adding certain cues, reactions and settings that define the time in the context of the actual match. The crowd rushing into the stadium? That’s the actual crowd from the actual match. The very few in-stadium shots? Totally legit. And there’s almost no musical score whatsoever, emphasizing the pseudo-documentary feel. Using those cues, Panahi creates a narrative within a roller-coaster ride, a political movie framed by a sports flick.
Once you get past the innovative and interesting contextual setup, however, it’s actually quite astounding just how many moviemaking tropes show up as Offside progresses. For one, the girls who get caught fall quite neatly into categorical boundaries. There’s the tough one who curses and smokes, the quiet one ,our protagonist at the beginning of the movie, who just wants to see a ballgame, the creative one who comes up with military fatigues as a means of disguise, and the slippery tomboy, who actually manages to catch a glimpse of the action. All the while they’re held up by the “just doing their job” guards, none of whom particularly want such a job, but all of whom are bound to their idea of duty. Even as it’s clear that they sympathize on some level with their captives, any sympathy is outweighed by the annoyance of having to keep them captive. Both the men and the women in the story are captives, really, prisoners of what the film presents as an outdated, archaic mindset.
To be terribly reductive about the whole thing, the young are oppressed by the old. Again, this isn’t exactly new territory.
Even so, the presence of such familiarity actually works in Offside‘s favor, as it increases the accessibility of the film to an outside audience. In the course of its initial release, Offside was reviewed by Entertainment Weekly, an odd place for a fully-subtitled allegorical narrative on the modern state of Iranian culture to appear. The surprising thing is that it’s not a bit out of place. Where most such films would end up on The History Channel or IFC at best, Offside is the rare piece in the genre that has a shot at Showtime, or even HBO. Kids could watch it, and at the very least, root for the underdog character represented by the collective spirit of the caught girls.
The DVD release of Offside suffers a bit for a dearth of extras. All that’s here is an interview with Panahi, which is admittedly very interesting. Over the course of the interview he details his struggles in getting the movie made and released, as well as his motivation for creating it. It works better than a commentary track, because reading two sets of subtitles probably would have been cumbersome, but still a lot more than just one interview could have been done. A mini-documentary detailing the line of thought that leads to the banning of females from sporting events might have been appreciated, as would have further interviews with cast, or even a few outtakes in which Panahi faces some of the challenges inherent in his goal of creating a narrative as close to “real-time” as possible.
Even all but alone, however, the film itself stands tall. It’s a bit difficult to see why Panahi felt the need to eventually introduce a male troublemaker to coexist amongst the women. It is also difficult to understand why he felt the need, in one case, to provide further motivation for seeing the game other than simply to see the game. Even amongst the missteps, however, Offside is as vital a release now as it was when it came out. Now that it’s on DVD, everyone from those deeply familiar with Panahi’s previous work to those simply ready to see their first movie that’s not in English would do just fine to give Offside a look.