Iran will continue to feature in newspaper headlines this month – for two reasons. The first is the stance taken by the US and Britain over Iran’s nuclear programme. The other is that Iran is taking part in the football world cup, which starts this week in Germany.
Iranian film maker Jafar Panahi has thus chosen an interesting time to release his latest film, Offside, in Britain. Offside is set at the time of a crucial world cup qualifier between Iran and Bahrain.
It follows the fortunes of a group of young women who decide to dress up as men to defy a ban forbidding women from entering the stadium and supporting the national team.
Panahi spoke to Socialist Worker by phone from his home in Iran’s capital Tehran. We began by asking him about why he decided to make such a controversial film, especially following last year’s election of the conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president.
“When we were producing Offside last year we still hadn’t had the elections – and it wasn’t clear who would come to power,” said Panahi.
“Offside was produced as a continuation of my earlier films [The Circle and Crimson Gold, both still banned in Iran]. Those films dealt with the social problems and restrictions that people in my country face. I regard myself as a social film-maker committed to dealing with these problems.”
Despite his criticisms of Iranian society, Panahi is clear that threatened US intervention would make things far worse. “Whatever happens around the nuclear issue, I hope it will not cause any problems for the people of Iran,” he said. “And any form of foreign intervention would ultimately cause problems for the people here.
“In closed societies any pressure exerted from outside gives excuses for the people in power to exert more pressure on the population. The people of my country can solve their problems by themselves.”
Indeed, Offside deftly portrays the determination of the wily and opinionated young Iranian women. After being arrested by soldiers barely older than them, the women argue that they should be allowed to see the game.
Panahi insists that he is just reflecting the reality of Iran: “As far as the government in this country is concerned, we have a closed system. But the people are very aware and very active. I’ve been inspired by the reality of my society to make this film – and I believe that Offside reflects what is happening in Iran.
“I make films about restrictions and I receive my inspiration from the people. The most restricted are women – every struggle by them inspires me. The more active they are, the more subjects I have. I hope that we will be able to resolve the problems and regain legal rights for women.”
Offside is a comedy, albeit a bitter one. When one of the women has to go to the toilet, a soldier veils her with a poster of Iran’s best football player to disguise her sex.
In another scene a soldier is challenged to explain why Japanese women were allowed into the stadium to watch Iran playing Japan. He can only say that it is because they wouldn’t understand Iranian men cursing in Farsi.
Much of the footage for Offside was taken during the world cup qualifier that it depicts, against Bahrain last year. Shot using hand-held camera, the film is almost a documentary.
The story is not strictly fictional either. Panahi was inspired by thousands of Iranian women breaking into the stadium to welcome the national team home following qualification for the 1998 world cup.
A group of women broke into the stadium during the filming of Offside itself – and got to watch the game. We, on the other hand, don’t get to see as much as a throw-in, because the real battle that takes place in this film happens off the pitch.
Held captive in a small area by the revolutionary guards, the young women’s struggle to watch the match works as an allegory for struggles that are taking place beyond the stadium walls and within Iranian society.
Panahi makes clear in his film that women and young people are ready to stand up to authority: “On average our country has the youngest population in the world. If you look at our universities the majority of students are women – and they clearly want to expand their social activities.
“Whenever they have had opportunities and no legal restrictions, they have managed to achieve what they wanted. The young generation has a much greater social awareness than the old because of their higher level of education and the means of communication at their disposal.
“They are more aware of their position and more aware of their rights – and they are making efforts to regain their rights.”
While Offside focuses on women, Panahi does not shy away from realistic portrayals of his male characters. Young, poor and often from minority backgrounds, their struggles are taken just as seriously.
“My films deal with the inequalities that exist in society, inequalities that no one should tolerate,” says Panahi.
“It’s idealistic to think that oppression can be eradicated completely.
“But if these films are allowed to be screened in Iran, they can create an impetus for people to think a bit more. Films can encourage people to look more carefully around themselves and to feel the problems more deeply.”
Panahi has spoken of his hopes that Offside would “reignite a discussion about letting women into the stadium”, but he got more than he bargained for last month when president Ahmadinejad lifted the ban on women attending football matches.
This decision was eventually overruled by Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader – but this is more a reflection of Khamenei’s political manoeuvres than anything else.
Yet this political instability is rooted in the underlying tensions captured so beautifully in Panahi’s film.
Offside’s release comes at a time when the US, caught offside in Iraq, wants us onside for an attack on Iran.And it is here that Panahi’s film is such a must-see – for it portrays an Iran very different from the one the proponents of the “war on terror” would like us to envisage.