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The Rules of the Game: Jafar Panahi’s Offside

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“I regard myself as a social filmmaker, not a political filmmaker… But every social film, at its base, comes into contact with political issues. Because every social problem is clearly due to some political mistake.”

Jafar Panahi

Offside begins before its first true images appear on the screen. As the credits unfold we hear the sounds of the street, in particular the busy traffic of what we will later discover is Tehran. This slightly disorienting device makes us immediately consider the relationship of the film’s world to that which exists beyond it, the real life of the actors and the passing participants who momentarily occupy the frame and pass before our eyes.

As in all of Jafar Panahi’s previous films, Offside asks us to link the realms of fiction and documentary, and insists on a world beyond that we can actually see on the screen. But it also makes us more attentive to the film’s sound. This is significant, as much of the film’s “message” is contained in the dialogue between its central female characters, all frustrated football fans, and the male soldiers who attempt to control and corral their actions. The film also uses sound to suggest and evoke much of what the girls are excluded from. Thus, although the film is largely set during Iran’s final qualifying match for the 2006 World Cup against Bahrain, we only get the briefest of glimpses of the game that is actually unfolding quite noticeably within earshot. As a result of this, we are positioned mostly with the women, gaining a very real sense, if never a full understanding, of the kinds of privations they suffer. Thus sound is used to both tell us about the world and to suggest images and experiences, and perhaps even further sounds, that we cannot access directly.

It is typical of Panahi’s evocative work to use such a fundamental aspect of the cinema – the soundtrack or in other cases the frame – to suggest a sense of restriction and social privation, to make us as an audience experience the film in a manner which resonates metaphorically with the experience of the characters. For example, the use of locked-off framing and circular camera movement in Panahi’s earlier, award-winning The Circle (2000) acts to represent and reinforce the limiting perspective and movements of its female characters. A device – such as sound in Offside – often used to open up a film’s world is deployed in a manner that underlines a palpable sense of exclusion.

A still from 'Offside' (2006)

These aspects and qualities also clearly echo the censorship restrictions that are routinely placed on Iranian cinema. Despite making five films over the last twelve years – The White Balloon (1995), The Mirror (1997), The Circle, Crimson Gold (2003) and Offside – Panahi has found it much easier to find screening opportunities for his work overseas than in Iran. As a result of this, a key factor in the production of his last three films has been the overseas money that has financed them and allowed for their international circulation.

But the content of these three films – particularly The Circle and Crimson Gold – has led to significant problems for Panahi within Iran, and none of them have attained local distribution or screening permission (Offside was screened at the annual Fajr Film Festival in Tehran, but this has not been followed by a wider release). This has made it difficult for Panahi to receive permission for the production of his films – which are still very much examples of Iranian cinema and are aimed at local audiences.

When submitting his proposal for the filming of Offside, Panahi fabricated the content of the script (indicating it focused on male fans) and attached another director to hide his involvement. The quick shooting schedule undertaken for the film – with a significant amount of footage shot on the actual day of the match – allowed Panahi to complete most of it before authorities became aware of his deception. 

Offside dramatises such restrictions through the viewpoint it occupies. Much is suggested on the film’s soundtrack, as I have suggested, but the film explicitly restricts its view of events to simulate both the perspective of the female characters and the act of censorship itself. The ability of the female characters to work within these frameworks or restrictions, often on their borders, also corresponds to Panahi’s own filmmaking methods.

One of the most engaging aspects of the film is the running commentary given by various characters, filling in and personalising the events we, and the female characters, can only experience second-hand. These accounts often favour a particular player or aspect of the match, suggesting much more than the somewhat distanced and uneventful glimpse of the game we eventually see. In the process, Offside gives us a very real sense of both the limitations of such a perspective, or the cinema it helps produce, and the creative possibilities it enables and entails.

One of the great wonders of the film is its ability to make us constantly think about off-screen space, as well as the compartmentalisation of the space we actually see on the screen. Like many of the great films about sport, it is less concerned with action on the field than the cultural, social and personal dimensions that surround and support it. Although Offside is plainly not a film about football, it is definitely concerned with the ways in which this sport speaks to, and about, both Iranian society and its international reception. The moments when the captured female characters complain about their unequal treatment in relation to visiting women spectators from countries such as Japan, is indicative of the broader social critique and questioning that the film undertakes. Nevertheless, it is also a film that recognises and helps us understand the importance of football to Iranian life.

A still from 'Offside' (2006)

Offside is also quite remarkable for its portrait of the relationship between men and women. Like many Iranian films, it relies upon predominantly exterior locations as a means to naturalise the circumscribed relationships it depicts between men and women. Thus, the relative lack of physical contact and the film and characters’ reliance upon verbal exchange, are a function of the social space the film is set within. But they are also a function or outcome of the social space – the cinema – in which they will be received.

Nevertheless, this film is remarkable, in an Iranian context, for its often-subtle portrait of women who masquerade as men (or who, more correctly, act as male football supporters). Much of the film’s humour – and despite its definite social critique it is often pretty funny – emerges from the relative success of each of the women in this role, as well as the often incredulous response of their male captors. These are women who are very aware of the social function of costume and modes of behaviour. This is partly illustrated by the film’s contrast between the young novice we follow in the opening section and final scene, and the seasoned campaigners who stridently perform a more aggressive form of masculinity.

There is also a significant contrast between the urban sophistication (and in one case, middle class privilege) of these young women and their mostly rural captors. This and other aspects grant the film a greater multi-dimensionality. As in his other work, Panahi is careful not to demonise and simplify his male characters. Although they do act from a position of male privilege, they are also subject to the rules and regulations of a society that is struggling to find the right balance between tradition and modernity, strict codes of behaviour and more fluid ideas of identity.

Despite not blaming his male characters, who are almost always differentiated and never ciphers of generalised male behaviour and attitudes, Panahi does represent and subsequently question the very real impact of social and spatial privation upon his, predominantly female, characters. Panahi’s films are ultimately provocations rather than answers, dramas of everyday experience rather than celebrations of it.

As Jared Rapfogel suggests: “Life in Panahi’s films is, finally, something to be endured, not savored; but his films are fueled by an admiration for the people, specifically the women, doing the enduring, for the craftiness and determination they muster in the face of adversity.” (2)

The strength of Panahi’s work also lies in its specificity. Thus, Offside has much to tell us about contemporary Iranian society. It is also a quite rigorous investigation of the effect, on a small group of young females, of a simple but somewhat ill-defined regulation that excludes women from a particular social/cultural activity. In so doing, it explores the absurdity of this situation, casting light on other social restrictions within Iranian society.

One of the most startling moments in the film involves a character donning her chador when confronted by an older male friend of her family. This is startling partly because it is the first time we see this mode of dress in the film, a dominant image and symbol of most other Iranian films and a key element of The Circle. But the way the character uses this costume reinforces it as just another marker of social address, a further means of disguise used to avoid or deflect notice and conflict. 

A still from 'Offside' (2006)

Panahi has emerged over the last ten years as one of the most vital forces in contemporary Iranian and world cinema. Offside, his fifth feature film, continues his preoccupation with social injustice and the often-porous boundary between the world of cinema and everyday life in Iran. It is also possibly Panahi’s most accessible film, and along with The White Balloon his most painfully comedic. It is also the fourth of his films to focus on the place of young Iranian women in contemporary society. Although Panahi has often been at pains to insist that his films are not political, they are definitely concerned with the social realities of contemporary Iran (and certainly have things to say about the impact of politics and religious doctrine on daily life).

Like his previous films, Offside also relies upon non-professional actors, location shooting and the tension between the characters and the stories they enact for the film, and the broader world they encounter and represent. For example, Panahi’s second film, The Mirror, doggedly follows and documents the journey of its young female protagonist home on a bus. At one point the film turns, the main character declaring that she no longer wants to be in this realist film anymore. At this point the film shifts into a period of chaos, as the realist illusion facilitated by the fusion of image and sound, naturalistic performances, and the film’s general immediacy, is shattered. But the film quickly reorientates itself, grasping the close proximity of the worlds inhabited by the character and the actor. With little fanfare the film continues, shifting from fiction to seeming documentary. The rest of the film shows the attempts by the crew to catch up with and document the actions of the character/star. Thus, it is about a character who seemingly wants to escape the cinema, their character, but can’t.

Although Offside doesn’t contain such an obvious partition between film and reality, fact and fiction, and their ultimate blurring, its remarkable blend of fictional storytelling with actual events makes it difficult for the audience to often determine what has been caught by the mere “presence” of camera and actor, and what is staged. In the process, Panahi’s films create a thrilling sense of encounter. The palpable sense of immediacy and realism captured in Offside is largely the result of this combination and Panahi’s adventurous decision to film amongst the actual crowd gathered for the match.

A still from 'Offside' (2006)

Panahi’s first film, The White Balloon, was one of the most significant works of the New Iranian cinema, and became the first of the nation’s films to receive significant international distribution. The film also established many of the preoccupations and stylistic characteristics of Panahi’s work.

Featuring mostly non-professional actors, it revolves around a little girl’s attempts to buy a goldfish and pretty much unfolds in real-time. The film also explores and foregrounds the domain of cinematic temporality, making its audience hyper-aware of the passage and circularity of time. It also initiates the combination of a heightened naturalism with a degree of self-consciousness that characterises his next four films. Like Offside, it also uses the framework of a specific cultural event, in this case the countdown and lead-up to the New Year, as a means to structure and temporise its episodic events. In The Mirror, Panahi actually uses the background commentary from a much earlier World Cup qualifier to similar effect. These elements are furthered in Panahi’s subsequent films, reaching their most sophisticated articulation in The Circle.

In some ways, Offside is a freer and seemingly more improvised film than Panahi’s earlier work. This is partly a result of the shooting conditions for the film. As I have already mentioned, a considerable amount of footage was shot on the actual day of the World Cup qualifier, and Panahi used several cameras in order to maximise the material he captured. This immediacy is palpable in the film, but it also contributes to the weakness of several performances and a less artful use of the mobile camera than found in several others of Panahi’s films. Nevertheless, much of the greatness of Panahi’s cinema, and Iranian cinema generally, lies in its ability to capture and be responsive to the moment, to give time to small events, actions and gestures. In this regard, Offside resonates closely with another seminal Iranian film about the desperate and ultimately futile attempts of a common fan to see a football match, Abbas Kiarostami’s The Traveller (1974).

A still from Abbas Kiarostami’s 'The Traveller' (1974).

Unsurprisingly, Panahi’s work has often been compared to that of Kiarostami. Before making his first feature, Panahi acted in a small role and as assistant director on Kiarostami’s Through the Olive Trees (1994), a film whose quiet insistence on the close relation of filmmaking to everyday life had a profound impact on Panahi’s subsequent work.

Several of Panahi’s films have subsequently found their initial inspiration in ideas and “scripts” provided by Kiarostami. In some ways, Panahi has continued the approach developed by Kiarostami at this time, expanding it to embrace a more obviously political and social agenda. Meanwhile, Kiarostami has gradually moved onto more abstract, minimalist and often insular digital works like Five (2003). Nevertheless, Panahi’s work has always had significant differences to that of Kiarostami. This is partly evidenced by a general lack of extreme long shots in Panahi’s work, along with their explicitly urban settings and focus on female characters. It isn’t really until Ten (2002) that Kiarostami grants centre stage to women and their place contemporary Iranian society. Although Panahi’s early works focus mostly on young girls, it is women who have dominated and driven his work. Kiarostami’s films also have a greater sense of the macrocosmic, and constantly shift perspective in order to observe images and configurations from a distance. Panahi’s films have a more immediate sense of encounter and even uncertainty. Jared Rapfogel, in a terrific article for Senses of Cinema, sums up the difference between Panahi and Kiarostami in the following way:

Kiarostami’s vision is a broader, more panoramic one. It’s Panahi who takes Kiarostami’s methods and innovations and directs them towards more specific, socially topical subjects. Panahi shares with Kiarostami a poetic sensibility, but he focuses it downwards, towards the street and the problems he finds there, rather than upwards and outwards – he’s a poetic journalist to Kiarostami’s poetic philosopher. (3)

When watching Panahi’s films these distinctions are immediately apparent. His camera rarely moves away from his characters, constantly but not radically shifting perspective and responding to their invariable movement through social and public space. These qualities are also clearly related to the ways in which Panahi delineates his characters. Although they are sometimes used to provide background information about the particular subject of a film – say, for example, a brief account of Iranian female football spectatorship in Offside – his work rarely goes out of its way to provide substantial back-stories or even to furnish his characters with names. Thus, some of the dialogue in Offside is used to fill in information about the technicalities of women’s exclusion from the football arena. These exchanges also help to fix particular dates and events that are significant to the effect of verisimilitude sought after by the film. But, ultimately, there is still little about the film that seems explicitly forced or that isn’t adequately integrated into the world it creates.

A still from 'Offside' (2006)

Although Offside is almost exclusively set outdoors and in public environments, it nevertheless communicates a sense of interiority and physical constriction. It is also formally constructed so that it begins and ends amidst the traffic going to and from the game. Because the film wants to give the audience a sense of the restrictions suffered by its female protagonists, the camera routinely stays inside with these characters when events move from inside to outside the bus. Similarly, the film rarely follows any of the characters who venture into the inner realm of the stadium, the shock of the one moment when we see a glimpse of the game acting to reinforce a sense of exclusion elsewhere.

In some respects, the film’s most remarkable and sustained section is its last. Contained almost exclusively to the bus taking the women to the headquarters of the Vice Squad, after they have been impounded throughout the majority of the game, this extended sequence furthers the film’s delineation of its characters along lines of gender and class. It also contains the moment when we finally discover the motivations of the character who “initiated” the film. At the moment when Iran seals qualification, heard on the bus’ radio and evidenced by the rowdy traffic swirling around it, this character reveals that her attendance at the match was motivated by the death of her friend at a previous qualifier against Japan (a highly controversial match after which seven spectators actually died). This admission also provides a further motivation for Panahi’s film, the very gradual revelation of this crucial fact – as well the very definite, if indirect, critique it offers – typical of Panahi’s cinema.

Yet again the sequence provides further context through which to view and understand the actions of the characters. Like many other moments in the film, this sequence also echoes across Panahi’s previous work, clearly evoking the penultimate bus ride of the female prostitute in The Circle. But unlike the bleakness of that film’s final shot, which returns to the motif of circular camera movement to hem in its female characters, now firmly ensconced in a holding cell, Offside concludes with a somewhat melancholy sense of jubilation and hard-won freedom. These final moments make direct reference to elements that may not be immediately apparent to nor readable by the non-Iranian viewer (and this might make us wonder about our response to many other aspects of the film).

The sense of joy produced by World Cup qualification is easy enough to translate, but the seven sparklers carried by the young woman and the song that rises on the soundtrack do need further contextualisation (even though we see the bright sparklers and have the lyrics of the nationalistic song translated for us in the subtitles). The seven sparklers evoke the seven fans who died at the earlier game (in March 2005), controversially trampled to death in the crush created when guards prevented exiting fans from venturing too close to a military helicopter. The song, “Ey Iran”, is widely regarded as a kind of unofficial anthem, a work composed in 1944 and which is often seen to move beyond the religious and political dimensions of Iranian nationalism.

Elsewhere, and particularly in its final moments, Offside manages the neat trick of being both critical of Iranian society and a celebration of an Iranian nationalism which encompasses both men and women, the present and the past. The final moments, showing the group of women and their guards being absorbed into the wildly celebrating crowd, is an image of potential, a possible fantasy, and a gestalt representation of community and free movement that too quickly fades from the screen. It is one of the few moments of true optimism and release in Panahi’s films.

"I hope in ten or 20 years’ time when people watch Offside they can look at it as a documentary of a moment in Iran when we didn’t have the rights and freedoms they now enjoy. You have to be very precious to think one film can bring about social or political change, but if people question the laws, the limitations and the restrictions, then the film will have done its job." - Jafar Panahi (4)

Adrian Danks is Associate Professor of Cinema Studies and Media in the School of Media and Communication, RMIT University. He is also co-curator of the Melbourne Cinémathèque and was an editor of Senses of Cinema from 2000 to 2014. He has published hundreds of articles on various aspects of cinema and is the editor of A Companion to Robert Altman (Wiley-Blackwell) and American-Australian Cinema: Transnational Connections (Palgrave).

Endnotes:
1. Jafar Panahi interviewed by Jumana Farouky, “Blowing the Whistle,” Time (21 May 2006)
2. Jared Rapfogel, “Don’t Look at the Camera: Becoming a Woman in Jafar Panahi’s Iran,” Senses of Cinema 15 (July-August 2001)
3. Rapfogel.
4. Panahi quoted in Ali Jaafar, “Fear of the Penalty.” Sight and Sound vol. 16, no. 5 (May 2006): 35.