Football, as the clichés go, is a controversial thing – a game of two halves no less – and the subject of the brilliant Jafar Panahi's new film, "Offside". Inspired by the occasion when his own daughter was refused entry to a football stadium, "Offside" isn't really about football, but rather what happens when a group of six girls try to sneak into that sacred space – the stadium where the Iran-Bahrain World Cup qualifying match is taking place.
According to a law "passed" after the 1979 Islamic revolution, women are forbidden from watching live football matches, a decision which Ahmadinejad wished to repeal but was overruled by the ulema.
The girls are caught, and though excluded from the game, they are not allowed to go home. So while Iran's most important match in years unfolds within earshot but out of view, they are put in the custody of three young, bewildered but traditional-minded army conscripts. United by their patriotism and obsessive desire for Iran to win, but divided by their views on the proper place for women, the characters in "Offside" represent a society that is in the process of tumultuous and unregulated change.
The film, shot like a documentary and using non-professional actors, is just under 90-minutes long and structured in a similar manner to a match. Full of small, comic incidents and surprising moments, the audience suffers the same agony as the characters: will Iran qualify for the world cup? But of course much more is at stake, and with a dull undercurrent of fear, you wonder, what punishment does "the Chief" have in store for the captured girls?
How did you go about making the film inside Iran? An article in Time says you submitted a phoney synopsis to the authorities who later found out they were duped. I felt as I was watching the film that something awful was going to happen (I was at points reminded of Siddiq Barmak's "Osama"). Did you and your crew feel that too when you were working? Did you expect the police to pounce at any minute?
Jafar Panahi: Many things in Iran always have certain problems. For each film that we make we have to think of creative ways of doing it. In Farsi we have a saying: "if you can't get through the door then climb up through the window." So this is what we have to do to find a way of achieving our aims. For each film this method can only be used once, and for the next one obviously we have to find an alternative way of doing it.
We gave a script to the authorities and it was slightly different – we said that it was just about some boys who go to a football match. Once they approved that film, we went about making this film. We didn't have any problems with the police but the Ministry of Guidance – the organisation which approves film releases – told us that it would not give us a license because it was not happy with my previous films.
It said that I must amend them according to its wishes, and only then would it give me a license to release this film – and it said that this would take at least a year. Well, time was passing and I wanted to have the film out before the World Cup, so we just went ahead and produced the film.
Are men in Iran generally sympathetic to the women's interest in attending matches or do they mostly feel that stadiums are a masculine preserve?
Panahi: Before the revolution women were allowed to attend football matches, the same as men, and the current restrictions came only after the revolution in 1979. Because of this kind of ideology, the mentality of the people has changed, and so it is this "official" mentality which is causing all the problems. But in my opinion, the majority of men do not have a problem with women attending matches. But since women were banned from attending, the whole atmosphere of the matches become very male and chauvinistic and rude, and it has by now developed its own momentum.
How often do girls and women actually get into legal trouble for sneaking into matches, as opposed to being turned away and sent home?
Panahi: The same thing happens to women who don't observe the hijab properly, it is what you call "bad hijab" when they show some of their hair. The vice squad are sent to deal with them. The women are fined, or they are sometimes detained and imprisoned, or their families are sent for and they have to guarantee that they will not behave like this again. So this is how it is done. But again, it is all about the way that the authorities interpret the laws.
Can you expand on the idea of the murkiness of the women and football issue: what's really banned, who does the banning? And can you comment on the interpretation of the law on various levels – civil and religious authorities, soldiers / police?
Panahi: Of course when you try to restrict something or implement a restriction it has to be based on some sort of law. But there is nothing in the law which has been approved by the Iranian parliament or anybody else which bans women from taking part. It has become a kind of unwritten law. The policemen and the soldiers too, have to follow this unwritten law and unwritten rules, and they are answerable to their superiors for it.
Stylistically, the film is very much like a documentary. You use non-professional actors and events unfold in real time – there is even a half-time toilet break!
Panahi: Yes, all the actors are non-professionals. The film is constructed like a documentary in which I have inserted fictional characters. Are we in a documentary, or is this fiction? I wanted the action to reflect this ambiguity. We tried to preserve a unity of time, so with each second that passes, I want the audience to feel that they are watching a real event unfold. The places are real, the event is real, and so are the characters and the extras. This is why I purposefully chose not to use professional actors, as their presence would have introduced a notion of falseness.
Where did you find the actors? Were the girls in reality football fans who were sympathetic to the storyline?
Panahi: When I write a script I look around for people who can do the job best. For example, the soldier I found in Tabriz, in the north-west of Iran. For the girls, they were mainly university students – and I found them through friends and colleagues and my contacts at universities. As far as their interest in football, yes, they are genuinely interested and passionate about football. They wanted to go to the matches.
Fortunately in Iran the actors or actresses do not get into trouble. The main problem is for the producers and directors. Of course I've got into trouble in the past so I don't mind so much – and I'm used to it, but as far as the actors are concerned there was no danger to them.
The film is very funny, and at times almost farcical. How important is humour to you in telling the story?
Panahi: I believe that it is the greatest insult to women that they have to deny their identity as women and have to dress as men to take part in society. So yes, there is humour, but it is bitter humour. You may laugh at it, but nevertheless you feel very sad that women have to deny their femininity to take part in a function where men can take part.
In the film I have deliberately included a female character who wears the chador. By that I want to show that it is not only people who are not religious and outside this group that have problems, but that even a religious person – who is prepared to wear the hijab – is restricted and not allowed to take part. The authorities are being unfair to the religious people as well as the non-religious people – both simply want to watch a game, or take part in male functions, and both are being marginalised and deprived.
Restrictions are imposed throughout different strata and classes of people. My aim in bringing together people from different classes and religious backgrounds is to show that everybody is subject to these sorts of restrictions and laws.
The reason given by people who say women should not go to these matches is the rowdy language, the curses and the swearing; they feel that ladies should not be exposed to that behaviour. But another point made by the ulema recently (in connection with the latest rulings) is that it is not correct for women to go there and see men with bare arms and legs. So even if they don't derive any enjoyment from it the very fact of seeing men in that position is considered to be bad. This adds a further argument for exclusion of women.
The element of masquerade and disguise is very important in Offside and also in films such as Marmoulak (The Lizard). Is this inherent ingenuity what scares the authorities so much?
Panahi: This element of masquerade is a general characteristic of all the films made in Iran. They have different layers of meaning and messages. This is what annoys the authorities – and the same thing is true for television, which in Iran is wholly state-owned. So it's not just that the authorities don't like the message, they don't even want to have the questions raised in the first place.
The very raising of the issue of women and their status in society and their desire to go to a football match – this is something which challenges the authorities, and they don't have the sufficient strength of character or tolerance to handle it.
The Iranian regime is a religious regime and there are many religious controls but these ideas are limited to those who are in power and how they interpret religion. Even among the clerics there are some very enlightened people who do not believe in these sorts of exclusions, but unfortunately they are outside the sphere of power and although they want to open up, those who are inside have a much more narrow reading of religious ideas and that is what causes the problem.
We are not trying to fight against anybody or challenge anybody with our films. All we want to do is raise a social issue. We want to tell those in government that there is this problem so at least they can think more deeply about it. We want to persuade them that there are more rational ways of tackling and dealing with these problems than sheer restriction or ignoring them.
Patriotism, duty and honour are major themes and it was interesting that you explored this through the younger generation.
Panahi: This is a good question and an important point. When you are talking about nationalism and patriotism we have to realise that this is not about chauvinism or the superiority of once race or country. Ever since the revolutionary regime came to power it has fought against some inherited national traditions like nowruz (new year festival).
People in Iran want to return to their national identity. They want to say that they have a long history and that there are many points of pride in that long history. They want to reclaim their traditions and to say that we are a cultured people, and we can live together under those shared cultural values.
Interview conducted by Maryam Maruf
© openDemocracy 2006