It’s hard to think of Offside without evoking The Wind Will Carry Us. It shouldn’t be surprising that Iranian writer/director Jafar Panahi is influenced by Abbas Kiarostami’s cinema. Panahi adapted Kiarostami’s screenplay of The White Balloon, a kindred spirit to Where is the Friend’s Home? and he also worked as an assistant director on Through the Olive Trees.
But where Kiarostami uses the technique of not looking and off-screen space in The Wind Will Carry Us to argue for an ethic of the camera, Jafar Panahi takes the same idea and uses the technique to align the audience with a form of sociopolitical oppression. In Offside, not looking serves as a condemnation, but not of cinema or the camera, but of the gatekeepers who deny women the right of what they are allowed to see/not see.
A group of women who have snuck into Iran’s qualifying game to play in the World Cup are discovered, rounded up and placed in a “cage” outside the stadium with several guards stationed around them. Mere meters away is one of the gates leading into the stadium, one of the guards stands there watching. The women (and the audience) are just outside of range of viewing the game, only able to hear the crowd reactions and tease out of few scraps of information from the onlooking guard.
A good portion of the film was shot during the actual game and the audience is only ever given the briefest of glimpses of what may be going on. The green field can be spotted out of focus in the background of several shots, but it is never clear what is happening. In this way, the film is able to express the frustration of being unable to see and know what is happening that the women experience.
These guards aren’t able to evoke a legal reason for holding these women, only that the social expectation is that women are not allowed to watch soccer matches. One of the more rebellious women questions this line of thinking. She begins to poke holes in it when she demonstrates the inconsistency of their practice as women from other countries have been allowed to watch games in the stadium. Why are foreign women given a right denied to native born Iranians?
Offside is also notable for its warm human portraits, delving into the woes of characters that have little bearing on the “plot” of the film or the overall conceit, but go a long way to making these characters feel grounded and palpable. These guards aren’t mindless, oppressive figures, but men with their own fears, woes and troubles that make it hard for them to step outside of themselves and their assumptions long enough to see the absurd oppression they are enforcing.
And the women themselves range in their personalities and reactions. Some are more rebellious while others resign themselves to getting caught and simply wait. One woman is part of a female only football game, another came to assist her uncle who she lost in the crowd. Yes, they’re all unified by wanting to see the game, but there are enough differences between them to make them distinct.
Offside sidesteps the pratfall of becoming a political allegory, simplifying and streamlining plot and character in order to make an efficient and effective message film. The message is still there, but it never tries to assert itself over the humanist approach to the material, one in which the villain isn’t people, but a social mindset that can only be thwarted by relating to each other as human beings who often share the same passions.
© 2013 James Blake Ewing