The Beautiful Game
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 Fans 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 hes 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 Panahis 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 filmmakers 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 Kiarostamis 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 thats 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. Its simple, and you dont need a lot of space. The superstar players often come from the least-privileged neighborhoods all over the world. Its the same in Iran; often, theyre 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. Its like a silent accord. Its 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 sharia?
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 isnt 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 dont.
Thats a real difference that exists in our society as well. Its 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 handlers circle? Its a mans 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, Im not the person youre showing me to be. I am capable of finding my way. Youre taking me along a path thats not my path. What youve attached to me as a story is not mine. Its not valid. When she throws the chalk down and takes off her head scarf, shes throwing off the confinements shes been saddled with.
After my second film, I was done with children. Now, once you enter the adult world, bitterness comes with the territory. Thats just the way it is. As soon as you take out the mediator child, everythings 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 theyre 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 doesnt matter that they might have to go back to zero. Theyre 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, theres utter despair and a world where meaningful dialogue appears impossible. But in Offside, dialogue is possible, takes place and even transforms relationships.
Yes. Its possible. But you know what? That was all dependent on the outcome of the soccer game. What if Iran had lost? I dont know what would have happened. I wouldnt 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 wouldnt 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, youre saying the films optimism was a happy accident?
This is what I mean when I say that my films draw on reality and that I dont 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 wasnt up to me. Just like, in this film, the ending isnt really up to me. Its up to society. This is also why I want to make one thing clear: Its 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 its 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 Id been born in Japan, would my destiny have been entirely other? Theres a need to assert this reality, that were not as different from the rest of world as were 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 theres 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 cant enter the space and move between the girls, there cant be any dialogue amongst the girls. The camera cant 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 whos reporting the action on the soccer field. I could have shown a part of the game. But the girls cant see that action. So, I dont have permission to show it. I mustnt. If you understand the tools of cinema, then theres 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 isnt 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 wasnt working with them enough or giving them ideas. They were like, Mr. Panahi, say something, tell us what to do. And Id just reply, still in broad strokes, Youre here at the match. Just carry on as you would. Thats 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 wed only give them to the actors right before each scene was shot. Wed tell them, Youre supposed to say this. Now go do whatever you want with it. Wed tell it to them on the spot. Theyd 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 theyd 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 havent talked about the music that comes at the end of the film.
Thats a piece of music that was written 61 or 62 years ago. Its a sort of national anthem thats known to all Iranians, though its 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. Its not about the Shah or the Islamic Republic. Its 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.
Theres a reference in the film to some women in white scarves whod 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 whos 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, theres 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, weve had to rely on the press. When or if they dont let us make a film were trying to make, we try to make sure the story makes it into the papers headlines that read, Theyre not allowing Panahi to make his latest film. If theres 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 theres 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 arent 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 havent 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. Youre 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 werent 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 Id published offensive things. I was pretty much sitting quietly, passively, not responding. The only thing I asked him, after hed 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 Id learned: If you let these people go on the offensive, theres no end to it. You have to counter at some point. Then he said, Why is it youve continued to stay here? Why dont you just leave? Go abroad. They like you there, dont they? They like your work. Go there. Why would you even want to remain here?
I didnt 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 Im saying to you. And I realize where I am and I know where Im living. So, its 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 shouldnt live in this country? If you ever said such a thing to me outside this building, Id punch you so hard youd never be able to get up again.
He didnt 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 didnt say a thing. Then, when he tried to speak again, I picked up where Id left off. Now, I said, you want me to leave this country? Let me tell you something. Im never going to leave this country. If you want, you can expel me. That isnt up to me. Its 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 Im guilty of the crime of being Iranian. In my country, Im guilty because I fight censorship, and for that Im 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. Its my job. I cant live anywhere other than in Iran. I wouldnt 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 theyve thrived. All this wealth and all this brainpower could have remained in Iran.
But its 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 dont need America to come and tell us what to do. That was a long answer, but thats 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 its 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 dont really watch soccer.
You have no idea what youre missing. Do you even know why movies are 90 minutes long?
Dont tell me, its because soccer games are 90 minutes long!
Of course! he laughs.
Panahi then starts to draw a diagram. It turns out theres an area of the field players on the team that has the ball arent allowed to penetrate when attempting to kick the ball into the opposite teams goal. If they enter this area, theyve entered banned territory and are penalized.
Our women here, in the film, theyve entered a forbidden space before the law has given them permission to do so, he says. They dont have that permission yet, but theyve gone ahead and entered the territory anyway. Theyve overturned the rules. So, they are at fault.
But in the end, I say, in your film, theyre not penalized. Not really.
Panahi looks at me but doesnt answer.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss LA Weekly's biggest stories.