A blatant critique of Iran’s patriarchal society, Offside was surely one of the films that most alarmed the government censors who eventually had writer-director Jafar Panahi arrested in 2011. Instead of sneaking the topic into the background of his story, as he did in The Mirror, Panahi here makes the subjugation of women the central focus of the narrative.
Offside follows a handful of women who have separately dressed in disguise and snuck into a critical 2006 soccer match between Iran and Bahrain, where women aren’t allowed. Rounded up fairly quickly – their disguises aren’t very convincing – they’re kept in a holding pen on one of the stadium’s outer ramps where three soldiers keep guard.
There is a real sense of danger here, especially in the early scenes. When these women willingly enter into the maw of blustery masculinity that is a sports stadium, you fear for their lives. And yet, while the threat of punishment remains, the movie eventually gives way to an overall spirit of camaraderie. Offside is a hopeful journey, from fear and confusion to joy and understanding.
We get an early hint of this as one of the detained women is being chaperoned by a soldier from the stadium’s gates to the pen via a long flight of outdoor stairs. They’re alone most of the way, and we fear the worst. Yet in confiscating the woman’s cell phone, the soldier asks to borrow it to call his girlfriend. With that simple gesture, a thread of healthy social interaction emerges.
This further blossoms in the holding pen itself, as camaraderie is shared not only among the women who meet others like themselves, but also among the prisoners and their captors over the soccer game that’s going on in the background (one soldier watching the game helpfully provides play-by-play). By the movie’s finale, which takes places as the women are being transported by bus through the celebrating streets, it’s as if the entire city is in harmony.
Panahi’s clever ploy here is to not condemn the government with an outsider’s harangue, but to undermine its policies from within. All along, the movie reveals pockets of empathy existing in defiance of the country’s oppressive regime. Early on, a young man notices a woman riding a bus to the game and he tells her he’ll help her get in. Near the end, as the arrested women are being driven through the streets, the soldier in charge leans out the window to fix the bus’ radio antennae so they can listen to the final seconds of the game. These are small, personal acts of rebellion, ones that subtly turn the dominant patriarchy on its head.
Still, Offside is no feel-good exercise. Even the final celebration feels like a fleeting moment. Surely repercussions will come, for both the women and the soldiers who have let down their guard. Indeed, the film’s most lasting image comes mid-way through, when an older man recognizes one of the women in the pen and chastises her for her behavior. Silently, she pulls a long, black chador from her bag and lowers it over her head, bringing to mind a newly lit candle that’s been snuffed out. Your heart sinks as you remember that the camaraderie of Offside is hardly the order of the day.