On-screen revolt

Print edition : November 17, 2006

JAFAR PANAHI WITH the Golden Lion he won for The Circle" at the 57th Venice film festival. - CLAUDIO PAPI/REUTERS

In "Offside", Jafar Panahi makes unforgettable use of comedy to ridicule a despotic regime.

IN her chilling, thought-provoking bestseller Reading Lolita in Tehran, Iranian writer Azar Nafisi talks about the suppression of imagination as the greatest evil against humankind. Imaginative knowledge transforms our consciousness, widens our world, enables us to celebrate differences in gender, culture, class, creed and race. Its suppression confines us within a cycle of tyranny as victims and victimisers. It demands the fitting of every citizen into a single state-approved mould.

Nafisi describes the decimation of freedom under the Islamic regime in Iran through the eyes of a university professor and her students. We watch the women writhing in the patriarchal stranglehold. As more and more new laws are announced, the noose tightens. They are appalled when they realise that their mothers and grandmothers enjoyed greater freedom than they do. A few escape to become exiles. Others undergo imprisonment or execution, or lapse into soul-crushed conformism.

The best known protest against the totalitarian regime has been sustained by the film-makers of Iran. Their subversive activism has not taken the form of shrill slogans but has created an aesthetic as subtle as it is piercing. Nothing black and white here, but shades of grey to induce lingering thought. They question the rules, even more their twisted interpretations, and induce viewers to ruminate on them. Like poetry, their cinema centre-stages the image and creates a rippling effect.

But to look at Khandahar or At 5 in the Afternoon or Marieh Meshkini, to name the films of the Makhmalbaf family, is to know that this kind of cinema is not just protest against injustice. It celebrates the resilience of the human spirit.

That is just what Jafar Panahi does brilliantly in Offside, a film that has captivated festival-goers across the world. It won the Silver Bear in Berlin (2006) and was screened for the first time in India at Osian's Cinefan, New Delhi. It is slated for screening in the slew of winter film festivals in Indian cities. Awards are not new to Panahi. A student of the College of Film and Television, Teheran, Panahi had the privilege of assisting the maestro Abbas Kiarostami in his classic Through the Olive Trees. His directorial debut, White Balloon (1995), scripted by Kiarostami, won the Camera d'Or in Cannes. The Mirror won The Golden Leopard in Locarno. Like his predecessors, Panahi managed to get extraordinary performances from child protagonists. In The Mirror, he created the sort of ambiguity that he would intensify and play with in his following films. The camera captures paradoxes and half-truths, leaving viewers to make up their own version.

Most interestingly, in this early film, Panahi clearly crafts a style that will gain in intricacy with each new work. It takes off from an acute but subdued documentarian's observance. True, the docu-fictional style is favoured by many Iranian film-makers. Panahi creates his offshoot reminiscent of Kiarostami, but with the imprint of his own eye and mind. One perceives this individual stamp particularly when the real intersects with the non-real. In a sense, all his work uses the mirror technique - one never knows whether he means to show what is actually seen or what is reflected from mirror, glass, lens... Sometimes there are teasing distortions.

His taste for shaping a singular form to heighten the impact of his theme contributed powerfully to the finished quality of The Circle (2000). This writer had the happy experience of watching Panahi receive the Golden Lion in Venice for the film. He talked about the film then and explained his concept of a circular relay race of the eight nameless fugitive women. The failure of one affects them all. Every individual's action and plight impact on society as a whole. Progress and regress are not confined to personal experience but are communitarian in nature.

Opening in a prison hospital, and shot live on the menacing streets of Teheran, The Circle has scenes shifting from simple issues to the complex. The characters too move on a similar graph. The hints of a harsh subtext become stronger and sharper as we follow the women, fearful of being caught, trying to escape from the asphyxiating circle that closes around them. The camera catches them with their masks on in public spaces, and off in lone or intimate moments. Without a single shot of overt violence, this technique heightens fear and suspense.

Panahi does not detail the women's past history or future fate. But he makes a cinema that penetrates hidden layers of consciousness. This sets the viewer's imagination free.

Admitting that neither his nor anybody else's film would change the world, Panahi once told a Western interviewer that he did hope his films would make people want to "expand the radius of their circle just a little bit". The Circle proves that the film-maker has widened his circumference from the White Balloon and The Mirror.

In The Circle, he invests the trite image with new connotations. The fact that the policeman in the film is no monster but shows a pleasant face as he talks to one of the women makes the surveillance and suppression he represents even more monstrous.

None of these award-winning films prepares one for Panahi's Offside, where the protest against gender oppression in Iran takes the form of a rollicking comedy.

Panahi's comedy uses all the tricks of the genre, from farce and slapstick to masquerade and satire. When his daughter was refused entry into a football stadium, the film-maker began to examine the idiocy of rules governing the viewership of the game in his country. He was to discover later that women were banned from sports stadia in ancient Greece as well. In modern Iran, women are excluded from football stadia because the state believes that they must be shielded from the raffish spectators, from the cursing and swearing - and from seeing the bare arms and legs of the players. Justified in the name of religion, this ludicrous rule underscores the marginalisation of women, as does the title of the film. Panahi makes it clear that he is not trouncing religion, only the mindless interpretations of religion by hidebound clerics.

Offside begins with a girl disguised as a boy trying to enter a football stadium but being caught by the vigilance squad and being penned just outside the stadium, where she joins others similarly caught in the act. At the end of the day, they are to be taken to the vice squad for punishment. Three gawky army conscripts are put in charge of the rebellious girls and find that their roars cannot cow the prisoners.

The girls represent different strands of society - both modern and chador-bound, those who play football themselves and those who only watch the game. Paint and disguise are defined anew as metaphors. Only in undetected male attire and paint-masked faces can the girls hope to escape the ignominy of second-class citizenship. Panahi's film questions many things. One of them is national identity. How can a nation boast of a distinct identity when half its citizenry is denied basic rights and subjected to whimsical forms of repression?

Iranian auteurs prefer non-professional actors for their docudramas. Panahi is no exception. Shot in 88 minutes of almost real time while a real game was in progress, Panahi captured football fever in all its riotousness. The frenzy of his actors was the result of their being placed outside the stadium, unable to see the action but buffeted by the screams of the spectators within. They beg the guards to watch and tell them about the game.

The all-male haunt has no restroom for women. When one of the girls insists on going to the toilet, one of the guards hides her face with a paper mask and guides her to the men's room. A fresh set of problems assault him. How can he allow her to see the lewd grafitti on the walls? How can he prevent other men from entering the space, without letting her secret out? In the ensuing melee, the girl escapes. The guards are shattered. They know they will face terrible retribution. But, having watched the game for a while, she returns to save their skin. Panahi's success lies in showing this core of fellow feeling even between adversaries. Men and women have not lost empathy for each other.

The final scenes are explosively funny, though a shadow looms ahead - how will the miscreants fare at the end of the day? The van crawls through exploding fireworks and wild celebrations of Iran's victory. The guard ignores the bursts of forbidden crackers in the van. Captors and captives share in this exhilaration.

So does the audience in the hall, but it is a different sort of excitement. Audience laughter is shot with nervousness, not joy. We are aware that we are not laughing at a harmless scarecrow but at malevolence masquerading as virtue. Offside makes unforgettable use of comedy to ridicule a despotic regime. The structure is simple and straightforward. The film-maker avoids digressions and subplots. He dares to trust his spontaneous-sounding dialogues, the natural wit of his characters, and the interactions of non-professional actors living their lives before the camera. His revolt relies on truth and telling brevity. Like Panahi's earlier films, Offside too is banned in Iran.

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