Jafar Panahi makes richly humanist films about Iran that never get distributed there. In interviews, he insists that he’s a social filmmaker rather than a political one, but when you watch his films you realize how impossible it is to make such a distinction â€” there’s no way to make a film about day-to-day life without also depicting the politics that shape it.
"Offside," like his 2000 "The Circle," explores the plight of women in Iran, but unlike the latter film, "Offside" is lighthearted, optimistic, even kind of cute(sy). The girls in the film have been forced to pull a "Yentl" (look at that, bringing the world together through careless pop culture references) in order to get into the soccer stadium to watch the Iran v. Bahrain World Cup qualifier match. Women aren’t allowed inside (though there are exceptions) â€” clad in baggy clothing and caps, plenty make a go of it anyway. The film first follows a girl huddled in the corner of a rowdy bus, hoping not to be noticed, though the young men who eventually do are sympathetic. At the stadium, she buys a ticket off a scalper who uses her precarious situation as an excuse to jack up his prices; she almost makes it inside, but flees at the sight of security guards patting people down. Caught, she’s hustled off to a corral of other female would-be game-goers, who agonize over being so close to the game and unable to see it.
The girls are great, a mixed, boisterous bunch who find immediate camaraderie in their situation. A fearless tomboy smokes and tries to bully the provincial soldier overseeing them into debating the ban, when all he cares about is finishing up his stint in the army so that he can go home and take care of his family’s cattle. Another persuades one of the soldiers to give them a running commentary of the game goings-on. A third insists on using the bathroom, which turns into an extensive comedic ordeal (there are no women’s bathrooms in the stadium). Together, they seem to have trouble taking their misdeeds seriously, but then so do the men guarding them â€” each expresses a different level of conviction (and interest, or lack thereof) in the rules.
"Offside"’s unrestrained camerawork, real-time feel (the film was at least partially shot during an actual soccer match) and non-professional actors give it a neorealist edge that verges into documentary, and it’s only at the end, when one girl reveals unexpected motivations for being at the game, that the gears grind a little. By then, of course, Iran has won, and the streets overflow with celebrants. Social realities are put aside in the temporary high of a sports victory, and if that’s a little easy, it also gives Panahi a chance to rejoice in the chaotic human mess he so clearly adores.
Screens October 6 and 8 at Alice Tully Hall; opens in theaters March 2007.