Two buses roll down the streets of Tehran, bound for Azadi Stadium. Packs of wild soccer fans hang out the windows like colorful streamers, shouting victory chants at the occupants of other, similar buses. On one bus, a concerned man searches for his daughter. On another bus, a lone figure sits quietly at the front. She is clearly a girl, with a soft face and a cute, turned-up nose. But she has done her best to disguise her gender, wearing a cap with flaps down the back, baggy clothes, and face painted in Iran's colors. Several of the boys on the bus immediately see through her disguise.
The girl (Sima Mobarak-Shahi) is on her way to see the big Iran vs. Bahrain game, a real-life qualifying match for the 2006 World Cup. The boys warn her that she'll never make it into the stadium, but she persists. She pays exorbitant fees for tickets, and is almost immediately nabbed by a security guard. Thus begins Jafar Panahi's Offside, a movie outraged by the ridiculous rules that keep women from attending live soccer matches in Iran. It has been pleasing audiences all over the world -- except in its native Iran where it has been banned.
Panahi's movies often suffer this fate; where his colleagues generally find creative ways to work around the government's heavy censorship rules, Panahi has routinely refused to play ball. He has become the designated teller of stories about the underprivileged, and about women in general. His masterpiece The Circle (2001) was a brilliant, yet hopeless triptych about women prisoners (literally and figuratively) and their various forms of sexual oppression, ranging from pregnancy to prostitution. Offside isn't quite so heavy. Typical of his humane, delicate style, he manages to show the irony in an entertaining, interesting way, rather than preaching it.
Our "first girl" (none of the girls here are given names) is taken to a makeshift pen on the top level of the stadium, just out of sight of the game, but still tantalizingly within earshot. Panahi stays there for a good chunk of the film, and keeps us corralled along with the women, sharing in their frustration. With the exception of one quick shot, he never shows the game in action. Among the other girls, we have some more experienced gate-hoppers, including a sturdy, boyish looking fan, and another who went so far as to obtain a guard's uniform. None of the women seem particularly upset about being caught; they're more upset about missing the game.
The girls pester their male guards with questions. Why can't they go in? The guards sheepishly answer that it's to protect them from the crowd's rough language, as if even bringing up such a topic is embarrassing. The girls assert that Japanese women were allowed to attend the Japan vs. Iran game. That's different, the guards reply. The movie's biggest departure, and its biggest joke, comes when one of the girls needs to use the restroom, but the stadium was never built with ladies' rooms. One henpecked guard is assigned to take her to the men's room and to make sure the room is empty while she does her business.
Like several other current Iranian filmmakers, Panahi studied with the grandmaster Abbas Kiarostami, assisting him on Through the Olive Trees (1994), and receiving the benefit of two Kiarostami-penned screenplays in his own filmography, The White Balloon (1995) and Crimson Gold (2004). Like his mentor, Panahi uses the physical space around him as the foundation for his story, both in its wide-open possibilities and in its crowded restraints. In this, he retains an awareness of what happens outside the space, offscreen, as much as what happens on. For example, in his second feature, The Mirror (1997), we follow a little girl coming home from school. At one point, the girl turns to scold a film crew that has been filming her, and she storms off, forgetting to remove her microphone. The film crew continues to secretly follow her, this time charting her "real" journey.
While still incorporating some of these same ideas, Offside is a good deal less tricky and more mature. Panahi gives the impression that, while these half-dozen female fans were caught, there were countless more that made it inside. It's a widespread epidemic; soccer fever has inflicted a large portion of the population, and like Prohibition, no silly rule can temper them. Fortunately, Panahi keeps his villains offscreen. He allows the onscreen male characters a decent amount of humility. The men genuinely appear to like and respect these women, and if they weren't such small cogs in a greater machine, they would certainly let them go enjoy the game.
The film's ending, which incorporates the real-life outcome of the game, takes this idea one further. It's a bonding experience for everyone alike, regardless of sex or age or anything else. Mirroring the opening, it again takes place on a bus, this time it's a security vehicle bound for some unknown punishment or incarceration. The women entered the first bus freely, but filled with anxiety. But now on the second bus, they're imprisoned, but ironically, free.