The Reeler


March 22, 2007


A soccer game provides fertile ground for examination of Iran's treacherous gender divide

The current Western perspective on Iran finds many of that country's major problems overshadowed by the specter of the dangerous leadership of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. A tight-knit gang of artisans broadly referred to as the Iranian New Wave intimately explores the smaller issues that plague the country itself, rather than its political impact or controversy as experienced in other parts of the world. One of the pioneers of this movement, Abbas Kiarostami, continues to work on adventurous projects and has influenced a fresh generation of independent voices, most notably Jafar Panahi.

The remarkable feat of these filmmakers is that they seem to cull from underground and experimental techniques popularized in other parts of the world, modifying those devices to fit the insular nature of their material. Panahi's devastating 2003 drama, Crimson Gold, dissects Iran's staunch classicism through the lens of the thriller genre. In Offside, his latest effort, the director uses elements of documentary vérité and Altman-esque slice-of-life storytelling tactics to examine the country's unbalanced gender divide. The divisive Iranian law that prevents women from entering sports stadiums doesn't just provide Offside with its starting point -- the confounding nature of this old world limitation remains the focus from the start to finish.

Panahi begins with the effort of a young girl trying to sneak into a large soccer game disguised as a boy. The ruse falls flat quickly, and a stone-faced guard herds her to a nearby pen, where other rogue females have been detained after their own failed attempts at infiltration. During an extensive second act, the prisoners engage in savage debates with the guards. The guards, a collection of anonymous young men, attempt to remain detached and professional, but ultimately cannot obscure their sympathetic nature: A touching moment finds one of the guards relaying a play-by-play account of the game's developments inside the stadium. They sound skeptical themselves when delivering a feeble justification for the imprisonment: that people inside will be swearing.

Recalling Fred Zinneman's technique in High Noon, Panahi uses real time to structure the low-key plot. The comparison is apt mainly because Offside debates Iranian values in much the same way that the classic western interrogates loyalties to American mythos. Although its third act tends to drag and ultimately concludes on a fairly anticlimactic note, the movie's neorealist vibe forces viewers to become complicit flies on the wall, fully aware of the flaws of the country's restrictions and engaged in watching them play out. The technique is more impressive than the actual movie, but Panahi's skillful direction crafts his formalism into a fascinating experiment. Rather than rallying for equality or adopting some equivalent didacticism, Panahi presents the situation as it currently stands and lets the facts speak for themselves.

It's a method that encapsulates his career, and stretches beyond his filmmaking. Panahi was unable to attend the United States to promote Offside due to issues with his visa. It's a rare circumstance where the artist might be better off staying where he belongs, telling the stories that need to be told.

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