For almost ten years Australian football supporters have held a grudge against Iran, who qualified for the World Cup in 1998 at the expense of the Socceroos after mounting a thrilling two goal come back late in the second playoff match at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. I was one of those supporters. Even when Australia finally qualified for the World Cup again in 2006, I still shuddered at the bad memories from that awful evening (the first Iranian goal was offside, Aurelio Vidmar should have wrapped up the game after 20 minutes, Mark Bosnich’s short goal kicks finally caught up with him….)
Jafar Panahi’s Offside so brilliantly captures the emotion and intensity of the frenzied fan culture that surrounds the sport of football in Iran that I have all at once jettisoned my lingering grudge against the Iranian national team. “Get over it,” I’ve been told. Now, thanks to Offside, I have.
Featuring a cast of inexperienced performers, many of them university students and friends of Panahi’s associates, Offside carries us through the politics of gender discrimination in a most entertaining fashion. Women excluded from a football match masquerade as men and try to sneak inside the stadium, but are apprehended by a group of reluctant soldiers. Kept, like cattle, just outside the walls of the stadium inside a hastily assembled holding pen, the women hatch all kinds of ploys to escape for a few moments to catch a glimpse of the action, discuss the possibilities of the game’s progress, befriend the soldiers, and convince one of them to supply a running commentary from his superior vantage point. They simply do not give up, such is their passion to break the shackles forced upon them by the 1979 law exiling women from stadiums featuring male players and spectators.
Any concerns with the slightness of the scenario are overcome due to Panahi’s rich dialogue-driven screenplay. He uses the scenario to discuss the issue of exclusion from a variety of perspectives, demonstrating the absurdity of the official reasoning behind the law yet revealing how certain kinds of men have been happy to blithely perpetuate discriminatory practices nevertheless.
One of the cast members is a revelation. Shayesteh Irani, who plays the ‘Smoking Girl’, pulls off the brash transgressive tomboy role exceptionally. It helps that she is gifted one of the film’s best moments, when it is called for her to floor a loud-mouthed juvenile with a headbutt. Unlike Zidane’s application of a soft touch of the forehead to Materazzi’s chest, she aims for the skull and decks the kid. Panahi claims to choose performers based on their resemblance to the characters they inhabit, in which case I think it’s safe to say that Irani does attend football matches and doesn’t take any shit from overbearing patriarchs.
Another moment that stands out occurs as a result of one soldier’s ridiculous caution. As he ushers a woman to the toilet, he forces her to wear a poster of Iranian football star Ali Karimi over her face. All the toilets are designed for and occupied by males of course, and he doesn’t want her to see anything that might be disturbing, including the smutty writing on the wall. Needless to say, he creates more trouble for himself than he can handle and the woman, who explains that she is a football player in a women’s league, escapes into the stadium.
Offside‘s story is wrapped up away from the stadium, with the women out of the holding pen and put on a bus. Along the way they get caught up in a mass celebration as Iran qualifies for the World Cup, the streets taken over with revelers. With no way out, the soldiers finally relax and embrace the excitement, even allowing the women to exit the bus and join the throng.
We never find out what form of punishment might have awaited the women, leaving us with a serious counterpoint to ponder amid the manic fantasy of the climax.