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The Beautiful Game 

In his new film, Iranian director Jafar Panahi argues for fair play on and off the soccer field

Wednesday, Mar 21 2007
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What is soccer, if not everything religion should be... the source of an infinite supply of hope... occasionally miraculous... governed by simple, uncontradictory laws.—Sean Wilsey, The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup

One of the star directors of the contemporary Iranian cinema, Jafar Panahi (The Circle, Crimson Gold) has been hailed by international festivals and critics, even as he’s had to work in the face of opposition and censorship at home. In his latest film, Offside, he focuses on a group of girls whose unsuccessful attempt to steal into a football stadium to watch a qualifying World Cup match lands them in a makeshift holding pen watched over by young conscripts under orders. As Panahi’s compassionately drawn characters reveal their inner lives, they illuminate a map of contemporary Iranian society, their detention a metaphor for all the contradictions, restrictions and injustices of the laws that tyrannize Iranian men and women. At every turn, the filmmaker’s affection for his home country shines through, and his hopeful stance allows us to share the palpable dream of those Iranians who long for a country that honors its rich culture and history and does justice by its people. In Offside, soccer is the conduit by which the film grapples with such questions and finds a resolution that points the way ahead.

click to enlarge World-weary traveler: Panahi stops through L.A. (Photo by Kevin Scanlon)
  • World-weary traveler: Panahi stops through L.A. (Photo by Kevin Scanlon)

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L.A. WEEKLY: Soccer has been addressed in some other Iranian films, including Abbas Kiarostami’s The Traveler and And Life Goes On. In your second film, The Mirror, we hear a match playing on the radio in the background. Does soccer play a role for Iranians that’s different from the role it plays for people of other nationalities?

JAFAR PANAHI: Soccer is a game people can play anywhere, anytime, with a single ball. It’s simple, and you don’t need a lot of space. The superstar players often come from the least-privileged neighborhoods all over the world. It’s the same in Iran; often, they’re from the south of Tehran. So, soccer also ends up being a gateway to a future of possibility and to leaving poverty behind.

In Iran, after the revolution and especially during the last eight years, soccer has played another role as well. When Iran wins, the city is overrun. Sometimes, even when Iran loses, everyone pours out onto the streets. The time, place and appointed hour are always known. It’s like a silent accord. It’s the only chance people have to make their existence felt. For a moment, they have a voice.

With the exception of Crimson Gold, your films have all focused on female characters. Do you see men and women as fundamentally different? And if so, are the differences specific to their life under a government that is run according to the Islamic law of shari’a?

I live in Iran and make films in Iran. All my films are constructed around the notion of restriction, limitation, confinement and boundaries. Naturally, I start with those who are living under the greatest duress — in a paternalistic culture like Iran, that would be women. Life for men isn’t that much freer, actually. Still, focusing on women provides me with the opportunity to address a great deal more.

The woman characters in your films seem to possess a resilience that the male characters don’t.

That’s a real difference that exists in our society as well. It’s not something I can deny. I addressed it in my first film, The White Balloon. There, a little girl is scolded, “Why did you go to the snake handler’s circle? It’s a man’s environment.” And she replies, “When I used to come with my dad, he never let me go there.” In The Mirror, we gave it more definition: The girl says, “I’m not the person you’re showing me to be. I am capable of finding my way. You’re taking me along a path that’s not my path. What you’ve attached to me as a story is not mine. It’s not valid.” When she throws the chalk down and takes off her head scarf, she’s throwing off the confinements she’s been saddled with.

After my second film, I was done with children. Now, once you enter the adult world, bitterness comes with the territory. That’s just the way it is. As soon as you take out the mediator child, everything’s stripped bare and turns bitter.

So, yes. Women are these bold beings who know their own way. They find themselves under conditions, subject to cultural, social and political rules and laws. To move forward, they have to break these rules. They have the courage to break these rules, all the while knowing they’re going to have to go back to where they started, knowing that perhaps nothing will change. But all their efforts are focused on action. It doesn’t matter that they might have to go back to zero. They’re willing to start all over again. This is a thread running through all my films.

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