How far would you go to watch your favourite football team in action? Paint your face with your team’s colours? Endure crowded buses and trains? Pay exorbitant prices for a ticket? The six women in Iranian movie Offside do all that to watch the match between Iran and Bahrain for the 2006 World Cup qualifier match, yet nobody seems to believe they are die-hard fans.
This would have been quite humdrum under usual circumstances, but women are not allowed in stadiums in Iran on the grounds that rowdy spectators, aggressive language and lewd behaviour are prevalent at these events. So, the women pose as men to get in and every subsequent action they take increases their chances of being fined or referred to the country’s vice squad. Despite tackling heavy gender and political issues, this movie by Jafar Panahi is a sports comedy. How?
One reason is that the movie focuses on the women’s singular mission of watching the match and avoids grandstanding (so to speak). None of the women know each other at the start of the movie and have their own way of trying to sneak in. One dresses up as a male soldier, another paints her face and wears a floppy hat as part of her disguise. Hilarity ensues but none of them succeeds in getting past the guards. Instead, they are rounded up into a holding pen just outside the stands. They can hear the crowds, but they cannot see anything on the field, much to their frustration.
The other reason it’s a comedy is down to the dialogue between the women and the guards. They’re baffled by the audacity of the women and start out by asserting their authority, but they eventually crack, almost like a reverse Stockholm Syndrome. One guard who is on national service whines about how he just wants to go back to his village and tend to his cattle. Another uses one of the women’s phones to call his girlfriend which sets up a chain of domestic issues. When one of the women asks to use the toilet, she is grudgingly escorted to the men’s toilet (since there are no women’s, obviously) where the guard tries his darndest to protect her privacy.
While most of the guards couldn’t care less about the match, the women are desperate to know what’s happening. They ask them for a running commentary, they act out the 4-3-3 team formation, they boast about their own football credentials. It is amusing but also despairing that the people who are invested in the game are kept out of it, while the people who are ambivalent have unfettered access to it.
In fact, this movie is remarkable in its ordinariness. It would have been tempting for the director to portray the women as a heroic gang of misfits or a group of feminists on a brazen mission. Instead they are just earnest in their efforts, they make some amateur mistakes and deal with their situation as best they can. It would have been equally tempting to show the guards as cartoonish villains, instead they are shown as foot soldiers in a regime who have their own lives and issues.
The closest the movie gets to acknowledging the limitations women face in Iran is the conversation between one of the women and the guards where she tries to make sense of why Iranian women are banned from attending sporting events.
“Why were Japanese women allowed in the stadium to see the Iran–Japan match?”
“Because they’re Japanese. They don’t understand our language. If the crowd curses and swears they won’t understand.”
“So the swearing is the problem?”
“No, that’s not all. A man and a woman cannot sit together.”
Panahi partially shot the movie during the match, which explains the shaky camera work at the start. He also used non-professional actors which makes it seem like we are stumbling onto a standard scene in Tehran. He was inspired by his daughter who was refused entry to a football stadium but ended up sneaking in anyway. Similarly, his movies tend to focus on the lives of children and women even if it upsets the Iranian government. His films, including Offside receive critical acclaim overseas but are often not shown in Iran. He is still serving a court sentence that banned him from being involved in the movie business for 20 years.
Offside is one of several films to use sport to humanise the everyday indignities women face, such as restricted autonomy, independence and freedom of movement. Saudi Arabia’s Wadjda centres on a young girl who wants to buy her own bicycle even though riding a bike is frowned upon for girls. The British documentary Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl) focuses on Skateistan, a non-profit organisation, which started as a skate school for girls in Afghanistan to learn to read, write and skateboard. Skateboarding is an odd choice of an extra-curricular activity in Kabul if you’re a girl, but that’s exactly what makes it an interesting story.
It’s too bad that none of these movies or documentaries have reached the pop culture heights of Bend it like Beckham in its intersection of gender, culture and sports, but Offside and the others certainly deserve them.
Watch Offside now streaming at SBS On Demand:
Make sure to also check out the uplifting film, Wadjda:
And catch the wonderful doco, Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl):