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.
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.
The vision you presented in your last film, Crimson Gold, seems radically different from the one we get to see in Offside. In Crimson Gold, there’s utter despair and a world where meaningful dialogue appears impossible. But in Offside, dialogue is possible, takes place and even transforms relationships.
Yes. It’s possible. But you know what? That was all dependent on the outcome of the soccer game. What if Iran had lost? I don’t know what would have happened. I wouldn’t have made this film. The film would have ended differently, because we were shooting at the real football game, at the stadium, at the time it was happening. There wouldn’t have been celebrations in the streets. The soldiers would have just proceeded to deliver the girls from the holding pen to the prison. It was the outcome of the match that set the tone. It was soccer that imposed the new vision on me and gave me a road map.
So, in effect, you’re saying the film’s optimism was a happy accident?
This is what I mean when I say that my films draw on reality and that I don’t add anything to reality. Just as, in The Circle, the women had to return to the police station at the end. It was out of my hands. I remember when I first conceived of The Circle and wrote my first draft, when I reached the point where they return to the police station, I felt so repulsed. I had to put the script aside for six months before I could bring myself to make it. But there was no way out, no way of escaping that ending. It wasn’t up to me. Just like, in this film, the ending isn’t really up to me. It’s up to society. This is also why I want to make one thing clear: It’s not that we intentionally paint our films black. The darkness comes from society itself.
From society? Or from chance? Because the win in a football match seems like it’s a matter of chance.
Chance can also create hope. The girls want to be a part of the world community. This first victory means something profound to all of them. The one girl says to the soldier, “So, if I’d been born in Japan, would my destiny have been entirely other?” There’s a need to assert this reality, that we’re not as different from the rest of world as we’re being made out to be. Accept us.
At the start of the film, we see confrontation between the characters and very little rapport or understanding. You have all these tight shots. But toward the end, in the minibus, once a dialogue has been established, the shots open up wider and wider. Would you talk a little about your use of space in the film frame?
The space of the stadium itself is masculine space. Then there’s the holding pen where the young women are held. Women are banned from the one and men from the other. I decided the camera had to be placed on the outside of the fence and could not enter either space. Because it can’t enter the space and move between the girls, there can’t be any dialogue amongst the girls. The camera can’t disclose their characters to the viewer in the way it would if it could enter their space.
So, the physical and social boundaries also dictate the boundaries of our camera positions. For example, I could easily have placed a camera where the soldier is standing who’s reporting the action on the soccer field. I could have shown a part of the game. But the girls can’t see that action. So, I don’t have permission to show it. I mustn’t. If you understand the tools of cinema, then there’s an inherent logic that you simply follow. Once they all enter the minibus, everyone is in a protected space together. Now we can penetrate the characters.
How do you work with nonprofessional actors?
There isn’t a formula, really — not for this film, or for any of my other films. I just figure out how to work with them based on who they are, individually. In this film, most of these girls I just let loose. I left them to their own devices. Sometimes they complained that I wasn’t working with them enough or giving them ideas. They were like, “Mr. Panahi, say something, tell us what to do.” And I’d just reply, still in broad strokes, “You’re here at the match. Just carry on as you would.” That’s how I treated them. Overall, I left it up to them.
But was there written dialogue or was everything improvised?
The dialogues were written in advance. But we’d only give them to the actors right before each scene was shot. We’d tell them, “You’re supposed to say this. Now go do whatever you want with it.” We’d tell it to them on the spot. They’d uncover their characters little by little. A few of the girls were theater and film students, so they had ideas. They wanted to work on building their characters the way they’d read that movie actors do. Then, once they were on the set, they were a little shocked by our methods and by having to adapt to our system of working. But because they trusted me, they went along and really left themselves open, and they let us work with them the way that we wanted.
We haven’t talked about the music that comes at the end of the film.
That’s a piece of music that was written 61 or 62 years ago. It’s a sort of national anthem that’s known to all Iranians, though it’s never been the official national anthem. It was never appropriated by any government. Its lyrics liken Iran to a jewel and focus on its culture and arts. It’s not about the Shah or the Islamic Republic. It’s about Iran and love for and pride in the country and its history and arts. Because at the start of every soccer match, traditionally, the actual national anthem is played, I felt I had to include an anthem in my film. But I chose this one rather than the official one and placed it at the end rather than at the beginning of my film.
There’s a reference in the film to some women in white scarves who’d shown up in front of the bus carrying the Bahrain players at a previous match and were apparently taken to a glass booth from which they were allowed to watch the game. The soldier who’s reporting this says they were allowed in because the foreign press was there and the authorities wanted to avoid a scandal. Does this indicate that the foreign press can effect change in the day-to-day lives of Iranians?
Yes, of course. It might even be the very best way. In Iran, there’s virulent censorship. Many news outlets have been shut down. The Internet is filtered, and Web sites and blogs are taken down and blocked. So, often the only viable source of news and information is through the foreign media.
Even as filmmakers, we’ve had to rely on the press. When or if they don’t let us make a film we’re trying to make, we try to make sure the story makes it into the papers — headlines that read, “They’re not allowing Panahi to make his latest film.” If there’s enough of a din, the cost is too great for the government. Eventually, they back off and leave me alone.
About two years ago, at the time of the match between Germany and Iran, a group of women announced that they wanted to attend the game. Their way of identifying themselves was to wear white scarves and to show up to vindicate themselves and assert their right to take part. Because this was a film about soccer, I felt it was important to make mention of them.
As for those on the opposite side — those in charge — they look at the situation, and they have to assess what the cost will be. Is a confrontation with the women wearing white scarves worth it if there are consequences in the international media? It might be simpler just to let them watch the game from inside a glass booth. It makes a potential story just go away.
You live and work in Iran under the conditions imposed by a religious government, but you also constantly travel around the world and receive kudos from the international film community. How does moving in these two worlds, with their contrasting values and their starkly contradictory terms, affect you both in your daily life and in your work?
My problem began with my very first trip outside Iran. As soon as I stepped out of Iran, as soon as I saw the things I was seeing, the constant comparison began. That is, I realized there’s nothing we lack to make our world more like theirs. We have all the resources right here, natural and economic. We have everything. Why have we come to be like this? What happened to us? Why aren’t we using our resources? Iran is a country that is so vast and has so many microclimates within its borders that, at the moment, in one part of the country someone might be swimming outdoors and in another region someone might be skiing. This land could be a paradise. Why haven’t we done all we can for our country? I started to feel really upset.
However, every time I went abroad, I only had one wish, and that was to return home. The constant comparing wore me out and saddened me. But these trips do have one great benefit: When you just stay in Iran, what happens — and it happens gradually — is that you start to accept the way things are. You’re forced to accept that this is life and that where you are is the center of the world, as if the sun rose and set only in this, your country.
Then, one day in 2003, I was summoned to the Ministry of Information. My wife drove me there, and she waited in the car with the cell phone, talking to friends in the film community who were checking in with her to find out what my status was. I entered the building. There was a long, narrow corridor. I was told to sit on a bench until the interrogator came. After about five minutes, I was told to enter a room to my left. I opened the door, and when I saw a furnished room, I relaxed a little. I realized they weren’t going to be doing anything too drastic to me. After a couple of minutes, a man who was maybe 32 or 33 entered. He began a rambling monologue, quoting from government memos that indicated I’d published offensive things. I was pretty much sitting quietly, passively, not responding. The only thing I asked him, after he’d been talking for about 15 minutes nonstop, was if I could smoke. He asked that an ashtray be brought and then started talking again, repeating pretty much the same stuff, on and on and on. I was waiting for the right moment to cut in. This much I’d learned: If you let these people go on the offensive, there’s no end to it. You have to counter at some point. Then he said, “Why is it you’ve continued to stay here? Why don’t you just leave? Go abroad. They like you there, don’t they? They like your work. Go there. Why would you even want to remain here?”
I didn’t reply immediately. I was halfway done with my cigarette, and I put it out in the ashtray, and I looked at him and said, “Listen, I know exactly what I’m saying to you. And I realize where I am and I know where I’m living. So, it’s with full possession of my faculties and freely that I say this to you: Who the hell do you think you are to tell me I shouldn’t live in this country? If you ever said such a thing to me outside this building, I’d punch you so hard you’d never be able to get up again.”
He didn’t expect anything of the kind, and frankly, no one in their right mind would say such a thing to an interrogator in an official building. He was floored, and for about two whole minutes, he didn’t say a thing. Then, when he tried to speak again, I picked up where I’d left off. “Now,” I said, “you want me to leave this country? Let me tell you something. I’m never going to leave this country. If you want, you can expel me. That isn’t up to me. It’s up to you.”
This was a period when people who were called in for interrogations were told to never mention anything that happened there outside of those rooms. I had just been invited by Richard Pena to the New York Film Festival for Crimson Gold. I wrote him a letter that said, “When I come to America, they insist on fingerprinting me because I’m guilty of the crime of being Iranian. In my country, I’m guilty because I fight censorship, and for that I’m taken and interrogated.” Afterwards, I was never summoned, never questioned. They knew I would always stand up and speak up and tell things as they were.
This is what I do. It’s my job. I can’t live anywhere other than in Iran. I wouldn’t be able to tolerate it, because I believe Iran has the potential for prosperity. It could be more prosperous than most places on the planet. Just look at the Iranian community in America; you see how they’ve thrived. All this wealth and all this brainpower could have remained in Iran.
But it’s the conditions that make people want to leave, or they leave because they know greater opportunities exist abroad. We need to create the conditions and opportunities to keep these people in Iran. I can see that we, as Iranians, have all the necessary potential, the necessary intelligence, to make our country thrive. We don’t need America to come and tell us what to do. That was a long answer, but that’s how my travels and seeing the world have affected me.
I begin to ask another question, but Panahi interrupts me.
“Wait, do you even know what an offside is in soccer?” he asks.
“No, not really. I just know it’s a soccer term,” I reply.
“See, I knew it! I should have given you a list of questions to ask me.”
“Come on. I just don’t really watch soccer.”
“You have no idea what you’re missing. Do you even know why movies are 90 minutes long?”
“Don’t tell me, it’s because soccer games are 90 minutes long!”
“Of course!” he laughs.
Panahi then starts to draw a diagram. It turns out there’s an area of the field players on the team that has the ball aren’t allowed to penetrate when attempting to kick the ball into the opposite team’s goal. If they enter this area, they’ve entered banned territory and are penalized.
“Our women here, in the film, they’ve entered a forbidden space before the law has given them permission to do so,” he says. “They don’t have that permission yet, but they’ve gone ahead and entered the territory anyway. They’ve overturned the rules. So, they are at fault.”
“But in the end,” I say, “in your film, they’re not penalized. Not really.”
Panahi looks at me but doesn’t answer.