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There are few things in life more illogical than sports fandom. Every year, the players and coaches change and the only constants are the uniform and you. Rooting for a team is even more illogical, however, when it represents a country that denies you basic freedoms. But hey, life is full of contradictions, and while most movies reduce people to their essence—as if one decision can define a life—Offside, the 2006 film by Jafar Panahi, lives in the beautiful irrationality.
Set and surreptitiously shot in 2005 during the 2006 World Cup qualifying match between Bahrain and Iran, the film, which screens on Feb. 5 as part of the 27th Annual Festival of Films from Iran, revolves around a group of teenage women who sneak into the stadium dressed as men to watch the historic match. Iran typically doesn’t allow women in sports stadiums, ostensibly to protect their purity and shield them from lewd behavior, but for the women in Offside this plan is not a coordinated political act. They’re each acting on their own out of a sheer love of the game and pride in their country. Contradictions abound. Of course, they are immediately caught and held until they can be whisked away to the police station. But while they can’t see the game from their pen, they’re close enough to hear the roar of 70,000 men, and to hoot and holler along with them.
Writer-director Panahi, who at the time of filming was already deep in conflict with the Iranian government over his subversive work, needed his own subterfuge just to get Offside made. He submitted a fake script to the authorities and listed his assistant director as the film’s director on official forms so as not to arouse suspicion. He even shot on digital video for the first time in his career—not as common in 2005 as it is now—because the camera was smaller and less likely to be noticed when his characters mingled with the real, unknowing crowd. It was good practice for Panahi, who would soon have a 20-year filmmaking ban imposed on him by the Iranian government. All of his subsequent films have been made illegally, and while they play at film festivals and are distributed in the West, they must be snuck out of the country.
Although Offside comes saddled with the baggage of global importance, Panahi never feels its weight. The film, starring nonprofessional actors, is a work of joy that finds its political points through profound humanism and specificity. Each woman reacts uniquely to her captivity. One was caught brazenly using a soldier’s uniform to access the stadium; predictably, she is defiant in the face of her captivity. Another hides her face in shame when she is recognized by the father of her friend. A third escapes into the crowd, but comes back dutifully to abide by laws she does not agree with. What binds them—the victims and their captors—is a love of the game. They beg the young soldiers in charge to keep them updated on the match. When their team scores, fears of their punishment float away, and they celebrate like any other fan.
It’s a rich text: a love letter to the people of Iran, a fiercely complex portrayal of systemic misogyny, and a plea to Western countries not to judge the Iranian people by their government. The oppression of women is one of Panahi’s career subjects, but Offsides offers just as much empathy toward its men. The soldiers who detain these women are young and impressionable, and they see themselves as protectors of the women rather than their captors. Panahi allows that, but he also uses them to show Western audiences that the misogyny with which Iranian men are charged is more complex than is typically assigned. As the story progresses, the soldiers’ reluctance in their official duties grows, and they warm to their captors. Before long, it starts to feel like they’re all on the same side.
It leaves the viewer with a complex stew of feelings. Forgiving the soldiers for their enforcement of draconian and abusive laws could feel like a miscalculation, but it serves Panahi’s purpose of indicting the system rather than its ground-level participants. It’s notable that only once does a real government authority show his face in Offside. Although he’s on-screen for only a few minutes, the tenor of the film changes the moment he arrives, and it’s clear that his villainy far surpasses that of his foot soldiers. Instead, Panahi opens his film to the people of Iran, and uses a football match to paint a loving vision of what it might look like if they were allowed to live freely. It’s both a message of hope and a helluva sports movie.
Offside, part of the 27th Annual Festival of Films from Iran, plays on Feb. 5 at 2 p.m. at the Freer Gallery of Art’s Meyer Auditorium. ffi2023.eventive.org. Free.