Jafar Panahi and the Rules of the Game

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Interview By David D'Arcy








It's been said by Condoleezza Rice that George W. Bush reads five books for every book she reads. Like much of what she has said publicly in defense of her boss, this is hard to believe. But we do know that Bush does watch movies, and if one film can be gotten to him before his alleged 9 pm bedtime, it should be Offside, Jafar Panahi's clever drama about girl soccer fans in Iran who are caught and confined when they try to sneak into a match between Iran and Bahrain. He might learn something about a country that he and his friends would love to bomb - especially in the wake of the capture of 15 British soldiers in the Persian Gulf.

The film is about many things, but one of its subjects is the imposition of strict rules - to protect women, the government says - which have turned back the clock under the Islamic regime in Tehran. One of those rules is that only men can attend soccer matches in Tehran's stadiums. Panahi follows a girl in disguise as she rides with loud male fans to a match. When she's found out, the camera moves to a pen outside an entrance to the stadium where a group of girls who are arrested are then kept in one of the stadium's outer halls that's been created as an impromptu jail. Confined, and guarded by a hapless conscript, a farm boy from Iran's Turkish-speaking Azeri minority, the girls are given a forum to do what the government does not want them to do. They argue openly with their jailer about the validity of laws that keep then out of the game. (Remember, freedom of speech and assembly are other taboos.) The men they confront are no match for their oratory, or for their knowledge of soccer. For the girls, sneaking into the stadium is a game in itself. (The one who wins is a boyish string-bean of a girl who manages to find an army uniform, which gets her into a VIP section until she's caught.) Competing to fool the guards heightens their mockery of the laws that are meant to keep them down. So much for reverence.

The film, compared to prison movies by some, seems more like a dialogue out of Diderot or a situation from a play in the theater of the absurd, in which characters use an improbable situation as a pretext for a conversation to explain the very stupidity of it all. One of the many paradoxes in Offside is that the girls are prevented by law from cheering for Iran with their male compatriots. The soldier explains that it's for their own benefit - they won't have to hear male fans cursing. When one girl mentions that Japanese women were allowed to attend a match between Iran and Japan, the soldier says it was permitted only because the Japanese women wouldn't understand the curses. Sounds like the kind of empty official rhetoric that you hear in any theocracy.

Panahi here is working as always with non-professional actors. He's also working in a context that will be familiar to Iranians, a soccer match, but it's a context that most foreigners won't know, especially if all they read is political news. (In his earlier film, The Circle, the characters, all women, are street prostitutes and young women thrown out of their homes for shaming their families; in Crimson Gold, the protagonist is a frustrated deliverer of pizzas, a servant of the modern take-out society.) Panahi is showing us contemporary Iran. It's clear that his characters here are suffering under an unjust regime, and that their suffering isn't limited to exclusion from soccer games.

When The White Balloon appeared in 1995 with its sweet tale of a young girl besieged by people out to steal the money her mother has given her to buy a goldfish, Bingham Ray (then at October Films, which released the picture in the US) had the ideal line for the trailer and the poster (and the voice to deliver it in fluent trailer-ese): "From a country you hate, a movie you'll love." And this time Panahi has added humor to the tenderness and poignancy of his earlier films. Just imagine a girl, still disguised as a boy, guided by a soldier into men's toilets - there aren't any for women - after she ties a poster of a soccer star over her face. Yes, dictatorships can be absurd, even laughably so. Panahi makes sure that we know there's a lot more to the joke.

I spoke to Panahi about football and phallocracy...


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