Offside

| December 10, 2006

In the dictionary I consulted, offside is defined as “in a position where you are not allowed to play the ball in sports.” I tend to regard its meaning as “out of bounds” or “not in play,” which certainly seems apropos to the group of beleaguered women director Jafar Panahi follows in this light-hearted but pointed film detailing the misfortune that results from the simple desire to attend a football match.
It’s inconceivable to a Westerner’s mindset that such a benign gesture could be construed as an act of moral and political outrage, but to the rigid patriarchy of the Islamic ruling class, such a want is a base affront to order, subject to legal prosecution. Tradition dictates that women are enjoined from participating as spectators to sporting events, barred from any public engagement with them at all. A muzzle must be taken to their natural enthusiasm and interest, celebrated only in the desolate quiet of the home. Detained in a makeshift pen outside the stadium, these young, defiant women who have brazenly chosen to flout the conscripts their society would impose upon them by attempting (through any means of guile available) to gain entry into the arena take on the hue of the heroic. This small stand, with will undeterred, reverberates with brave assertion. Keep in mind one of the first people we see on screen is a grandfather searching frantically for the granddaughter who has defected to the match disguised as a boy-he fears if her father or brothers catch her first she will be severely beaten or perhaps killed. Later we see another man (perhaps the same one) move to brutally strike one of the girls for her disrespect; what’s chilling about the action is the impunity with which it is done, as if it’s an unquestionable, acceptable right the man has in response to the girl’s action.
Panahi is no novice to controversy. From the start, his work has addressed the plight of women in a repressive society, his voice calm but sharply frank. The deceptively simple rambling of the young female protagonist in The White Balloon, her relative ease of movement through the streets of Tehran and the ability to interact with a cross-section of its inhabitants, already carries the air of elegy about it, as looming womanhood will bid swift end to such access and solicitousness. In the more confrontational and daring The Circle, the sad, closed trajectory of constricted lives is rhythmically present in the very structure of the film, endlessly looping in on itself. Despair and silent rage are the only acceptable responses to downtrodden existences.
Always courting the disfavour of the despotic central government, Panahi himself can be seen as a revolutionary, a necessary dissident artist, insisting on the supremacy of the humane. That he is able to somehow explore incendiary material with such a blithe spirit-and without ever losing the sense of purpose-is inspiring. He’s a graceful polemicist, so warm and serene in his treatment of people that the material never hardens into smug rectitude. Free of unchecked anger, his films are remarkably supple and fluid.
With just a few key environments, Panahi reveals an entire universe of power and condition. The story follows no one character, instead elegantly trading off perspectives from girl to girl as the story allows (in this regard Panahi honours them as a collective persecuted community). Thus the girl whose perilous bus journey to the stadium we follow from the film’s start (a watchful camera attuned to every flicker of nervous dread she experiences, holding herself as still and humbly as she can to avoid the attention of the agitated boys around her) and whose tense entry to, and negotiation of, the football grounds we breathlessly witness, soon cedes prominence to the other girls upon their introduction. No one girl is ever identified by a name, yet Panahi allows each performer to distinguish herself comprehensively. The provincial soldiers commanded to shepherd the girls are barely more formed than their charges, caught as they are in their own particular strictures of society. They seem hardly able to muster the conviction needed to carry out their orders.
Panahi’s editing style is nearly musical in nature, as it responds constantly to subtle shifts in tone and tempo. He takes what in other director’s hands would be a routine sequence and masterfully wrings out every angle of suspense it can possibly hold. Given the assignment to accompany one of the girls to the bathroom, a reluctant guard takes her, head covered, to the men’s toilet, and from there must coordinate a comic (though volatile) clearance of the facilities, keeping the relentless spill of men from colliding with the female in their presence. There’s the anarchy of farce in this ever-mounting scenario, but also a queasy sense of threat waiting to explode; it becomes difficult to separate the two as the scene progresses, all due to Panahi’s determined efforts. In nearly every passage of this skillful film, Panahi is able to achieve a suspense worthy of the best Hollywood blockbuster.
Shot (surreptitiously?) with documentary-like realism, on the day of the Iranian team’s qualifying game for the 2005 World Cup, the film has a remarkable immediacy. I wonder how much of what was caught on camera was found rather than scripted. As the van takes the girls to the police station for official sentencing, a nearly cosmically granted chaos erupts, allowing an abrupt reprieve, a gentle walk into the warm annihilation of a sudden group event. All gender differences have been negated in one ephemeral moment of celebratory fervor, a moment in which Panahi sees the chance for everyone’s salvation.
With this exalted effort, Panahi has made his bid to salvage the disreputable nature of much recent cinema.

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