DVD Catch Up: Offside(1/30/2008)

(Warning: That DVD Cover is REALLY Misleading) 

            Now that 2007 is over and there’s nothing interesting coming out in the next month or so, I can really start to do a lot of catching up with all the things from the last year that I missed out on.  Some of the things I missed out of disinterest or lazyness, while other things were missed out of sheer inopportunity, one such film is this small Iranian drama which was given a miniscule release last march, but eventually found its way onto a handful of top ten lists. 

            The film is set on the day of a big soccer match in Tehran between the Iranian national team and the Bahrain, if Iran wins or ties they will secure a spot in the 2006 world cup.  The film documents a group of young women trying to see the game live in Azadi Stadium.  The problem is that women are legally banned from entering the stadium under Iranian law.  The law does little to deter hardcore female soccer fans from trying to sneak in, as is depicted in the opening scene of the film in which a girl tries to sneak in but is caught at the door.

            This girl, like the rest of the characters, is unnamed throughout the film.  She is brought to a makeshift cage outside the stadium which is guarded by three young soldiers serving their compulsory service in the Iranian army.  The film proceeds to examine and challenge the Iranian gender restriction laws, focusing of course on the restrictions at sporting events.

            What really makes the film work is the general absurdity of the situation at hand.  For those who don’t know, Tehran doesn’t look anything like the rural mess most people think the Middle East is, it more or less looks like a modern urban environment.  Yet in this modern environment (complete with cell phones), bizarre attitudes toward women still persist almost unchallenged. 

The main reason men of power cite for the stadium restriction laws is that “a stadium is no place for women” and “if the team loses the men will begin cursing freely.”  In other words, women aren’t allowed because it would force the male fans to restrain themselves in front of female spectators. Adding to the irony is that most of these female fans are interested in seeing the game out of purely patriotic interest in this big match.  The girls are clad in Iranian flags and face paint and whenever they learn that the Iranian team has done something well they go into a nationalistic chant.  By banning women from the game the nation has prevented a large portion of the population from engaging in a nationalistic celebration, and for no logical reason.

Acclaimed director Jafar Panahi appears to have shot the film on video, and in a vérité style that heightens the realism.  All the characters are played by ordinary people rather than professional actors, but they seem to come across fine.  Interestingly, large parts of the film were actually shot discreetly at the real game between Iran and Bahrain.  There are authentic crowd scenes, and because of this the film’s structure would have had to have been massively reworked on the spot depending on the outcome of the game.

            The plotline here may be a bit thin for most.  The film essentially plays out in real time (90 minute film, 90 minute soccer match), is more of a slice of life than a fully realized story.  The real joy here is in the interesting conversations that take place along the way, as well as the overall political statement the film makes.  I was a bit disappointed in the film’s ending, which fails to examine the final consequences of the situation in order to more fully look at the link between the laws and nationalism.  But overall this is definitely an interesting film worth seeing to spend some time in this foreign culture.

*** out of four

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