Offside (Jafar Panahi, 2006)
While Offside is essentially a sports film, it is, like all of Jafar Panahi's previous films, a work that is ignited from an astute observation of a prevailing social ill: gender inequality in Iran. As mentioned, it operates like a sport film, where the audience is urged to root for the Iranian team, who in that final game against Bahrain, has a chance to qualify in the World Cup. Excitement is seen in the streets, where numerous buses which are carrying hordes of shouting, swearing, and ecstatic fans are parading towards the stadium. The fans alight, brandishing Iranian flags, posters of local football stars, and other sports paraphernalia, ready to enjoy what might be a nail-biting match for a semblance of national glory.
However, the film does not actually begin with the above-described public jubilation. The film begins with tension, where an old man rushes to catch one of those buses to search for his daughter who he believes has joined the ranks of excited fans to the stadium. The film later makes its audience aware that women are not allowed to watch football games inside the stadium. Despite the rule, female football fans would risk the repercussions of breaking the law just to be able to watch the games and take part in the communal joy or frustration. The film actually follows one such female. She is a first-timer in trying to sneak into the stadium (we learn that the practice is prevalent, with some female football fans, donning boy's clothes several times before getting caught). She dons her disguise (a cap and a loose shirt, and her face is painted with the colors of the Iranian flag), but despite that, it is pretty obvious that she is not a boy. Because of that obviousness, the audience can only fear for her. There is absolutely no way that she will not be found out, and as the audience later learns of the penalties of breaking the law, the extent of the girl's irrationality --- the immensity of the sacrifice for something as paltry as seeing a game in the stadium --- is undeniable.
It is that premise of the girl's palpable irrationality that pervades the film. As the film spends most of its time in the holding bay, an area just outside the stadium, where the offenders are kept, the film slowly reveals that the girl's irrationality is hardly unique. Inside the bay is a colorful mix of offenders, and their interaction among themselves or with their captors, amidst the atmosphere of excitement brought about by the game, is portrayed, probably as a lingering joke of fate where these women are mere meters away from actually watching the football match but cannot do so because they were caught. The joke is funny only in a cruel sort of way, given the fact that the reason behind the law --- that women cannot watch alongside men to prevent them from hearing swears that may eventually corrupt them --- is hardly an act of fate, but a product of an obsolete and skewed belief that simply does not belong in the modern world. The only reason these women have become irrational is because they struggle with the irrationality of the entire system.
Panahi cleverly treats things lightheartedly. The center of all the madness is after all simply a game. Where his previous films are all depressing dramas about the current situation in Iran (notably these films are never screened in Iran because of the anti-establishment message Panahi preaches), Offside is unusually joyful and hopeful. Amidst an irrational practice that has ripened to a socially-accepted tradition, the film treats the rebellion with sympathetic eyes. These ladies, although kept and probably quite familiar of the punishment that would be dealt to them, still have the courage to joke around, to actually enjoy the game they are not seeing, and to make friends. It is that common interest, the anger accumulated towards their national team's opponent, that keeps these girls united, that keeps these girls united with the rest of the nation that scorns on their behavior. In the end, fans, offenders and guards celebrate. There is no division.
Panahi's initial message is quite clear --- that in our world, there are ludicrous norms that should be eliminated because they limit human freedoms. Panahi however doesn't just stop there. He is not content with raising a complaint. He transforms that message to one of unity, of that tying factor that all humans possess, whether one is Iranian, foreigner, male, or female. In that rare moment of joy, one cannot just hold unto formalities that mask our humanity. These masks should be uncovered. Our faces should be revealed smiling, and full of emotions. In that last scene in Offside, we, for a moment, forget what the film is trying to fight, given that the film bubbles with happiness. It's no longer about these women who disguise themselves as men just to be able to watch a football match. It is now about a country composed of both men and women who during that night when their national team won, erupt in exquisite jubilation, and start dancing in the streets to celebrate their victory. The overall message is clear: our world may be dangerously imperfect, but that doesn't mean there's no reason to celebrate.
(The film will be screened on May 6, 2010 at the U.P. Film Institute as part of the worldwide support for the release of director Jafar Panahi, who was incarcerated in Iran for simply speaking his mind.)