Berlinale 2019: Marwa Zein's "Khartoum Offside"

Football, film and freedom in Sudan

Marwa Zein has made an impressive documentary about the Sudanese women's football team, if only the national football association would recognise it as such. The players are neither allowed to represent their country at international level nor set up a domestic women's football league. By Rene Wildangel

This is certainly not the first time that the Berlinale has featured a film about football as a gauge of how liberal a society is. There have in the past been several such films, most of which focussed on Iran, where women have long been fighting to be able to live out their passion for football by either playing the game or watching professional matches in stadia.

While the official line is that this is still not to be encouraged, it was made possible for the first time in decades in 2018. The documentary "Football under Cover", which focussed on the Iranian women's national football team, was shown at the Berlinale in 2008, while Jafar Panahi's film "Offside", which introduced the world to the Iranian women who opposed the ban on women in stadiums was a hit at the Berlinale in 2006.

But unlike Iran, Sudan does not have the reputation of being a football nation. Its men's team ranks 127th in the world, right behind the Caribbean nation of Antigua and Barbuda. In recent years, Sudan has been making headlines for the genocide in Darfur and the Nuba Mountains, the persecution of opposition politicians and activists, the independence of South Sudan (164th in the world football rankings) and the ongoing civil war rather than for its prowess on the football field.

Women deprived of rights by law

It goes without saying that all of this has had little impact on the Sudanese passion for football: national league games still sell out and the popular rivalry between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid is celebrated throughout the region. But the world of football in Sudan is almost exclusively male; women are not wanted.

Poster advertising Marwa Zeinʹs "Khartoum Offside" (source: Berlinale 2019)
"We – the women – are not allowed to make films or play football under Islamic rule" is the message in the opening credits of the film "Khartoum Offside". In her documentary, director Marwa Zein portrays courageous women who revolt against this exclusion

A quote included in the film's opening credits sets the scene: women in Sudan are allowed to neither make films nor play football under Islamic rule.

Director Marwa Zein's documentary "Khartoum Offside" is all about a group of courageous women who are rebelling against marginalisation.

This marginalisation is the result of a law known as the "Public Order Act" that was passed by the Islamist government and systematically persecutes women. "Immoral behaviour" is punishable by imprisonment or up to 40 lashes.

"Immoral behaviour" can be anything: wearing trousers, smoking, drinking or playing football.

"People in Sudan – especially women – are fed up with this despotism. This is why they are taking to the streets to protest," says Marwa Zein, who laments the fact that this struggle is being virtually ignored by the international community.

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