In Offside, Iranian teenage girls disguised as boys beg, bribe and sneak their way into a soccer stadium so they can watch their beloved home team battle Bahrain for the championship. They're discovered and arrested by young soldiers who'd rather be watching the match themselves but feel duty-bound to prevent the girls from doing so.
Cast in an American context, this story would be a lighthearted, entertaining teenage romp. But as a product of Iran, the prank comes across quite differently. Offside is a strong yet subtly understated indictment of gender apartheid that deprives women of human rights in Iran and, by extension, in other countries.
Tehran-based director Jafar Panahi makes films that don't please his government. In fact, Offside and his previous films, The Circle (2000) and Crimson Gold (2003), are officially banned in Iran — although they've received international acclaim.
"We've had censorship problems since filmmaking in Iran was born," says Panahi. "It's always been up to the filmmakers to find ways to still make their movies. We have to be constantly creative and inventive to do this because, when you resort to a ploy for one film, you can't use that ploy again for another.
You have to find another way to get around the censorship."
CityBeat: Were there problems with Offside? What ploy did you use?
Jafar Panahi: Circumstances were different. Iran was transitioning from lame duck to new government, with campaigning and an election going on. The deputy minister in charge of cinematic affairs in the ministry of guidance threatened that if I didn't change my last film, Crimson Gold, they wouldn't allow me to make any more films. If I made changes, they'd allow me to make another movie after a year. But Offside is time-specific. The match between Iran and Bahrain was already scheduled, and if I were to wait one year, it would have been after the game.
So I wrote a fake script and submitted it under someone else's name, and when we applied for the production permit — because after a script is accepted, you must get a shooting permit — I listed someone else as director. We shot the film in secrecy. Until about five days before the end of our shooting, nobody knew I was making a film. Then a newspaper found out and ran a story, so the authorities found out. The police department sent me a letter that I needed to have a permit, but I was already done with the majority of the film; I just had to complete scenes inside the minibus at the end of the movie. So we went outside of Tehran, where we didn't need a permit, and finished the film.
CB: That ending, with all the cheering for Iran, seems quite nationalistic. Yet you've not been allowed to show Offside in Iran, right?
JP: Unfortunately we couldn't. We'd planned to show the film one month before the World Cup. The distributor was ready, but we couldn't get the permit. The film was shown at Fajr Film Festival in Tehran, but in a side section where it wasn't in competition for an award. Three days before the World Cup, bootleg DVDs were all over town. Many people have seen the film on DVD, but not in public screenings. It's very easy (to get bootlegs). Any movie shown in America, you can find bootleg copies in Iran. If they're really popular, people subtitle them in Farsi and flood the market with them.
CB: Do you risk recrimination for having made the film?
JP: Our punishment is just being subject to censorship. Therefore, there's a lot more pressure when we're producing the movies. After movies are made, the fact is they can't do a whole lot because we're well-known filmmakers and if they do anything to us, they know there will be a public outcry.
CB: As a filmmaker, how would you characterize your social role and your body of work?
JP: I make films about restrictions, all those things that keep people from going about their lives the way they want to and denying them their natural rights. I'm not an idealistic filmmaker who thinks my movies can cause profound and radical changes. My only hope is that my movies will provoke people to think, especially about the nature of those restrictions, and whether they should be subject to them — including whether they're allowed to see my movies or not. I'm only showing existing social conditions, not saying whether or not they should exist. That's for people to decide.
As I mentioned, censorship existed in Iran before and after the revolution. In countries like this, filmmakers must find ways to say what they want, to make their movies despite censorship. The situation has grown increasingly worse, but we're still making our movies.
I think that looking at this from the outside, you see this as a harsher picture because there are nuances that evade you. When you're in Iran, you're aware of nuances and find ways to maneuver. There are many other countries — like the former Soviet Union — where there was censorship, where they made great movies. So it goes back to the creativity of the filmmakers and how they rise above circumstances. ©