Offside (PG) <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

In the penalty box
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The Independent Culture

Apologies to those readers turning to this part of the newspaper in hope of refuge from the World Cup, but it behoves me to report that the most rousing film of the week is about football. But Jafar Panahi's gently satirical comedy Offside doesn't actually show a ball being kicked; indeed, we only glimpse the field of play for a few seconds, and those in long shot. This is a film about fans who turn up to watch a game but are refused entrance and arrested before they've even passed through the turnstile. Are these known troublemakers and hooligans? Have they shown up for the game without a ticket? No: they are barred for being women.

The story begins, rowdily, on a coach packed with Iranian football fans on their way to watch the national team play a World Cup qualifier against Bahrain. Fans being pretty similar the world over, they lean, hollering, out of bus windows, wave flags, nearly get into fights and generally pollute the air with testosterone. The subtitles don't actually flash up the phrase, "We are the Iranian crew", but you can tell that's more or less what they're about. Then the camera sees, out of the corner of its eye, a young fan who's not joining in this bacchanalian uproar. He's sporting the green, white and red of the Iranian flag painted on his face but, in trying to be unobtrusive, he only makes himself seem more conspicuous... and then you realise that "he" is a she, and the cap pulled over her head is a disguise to fool the security. "You look like a total girl," a boy tells her straight.

Iranian law prohibits women from entering sports stadia, lest they be contaminated by the rough male atmosphere and swearing. The girl (Sima Mobarak-Shahi), pausing only to be ripped off by a tout, nervously joins the thronging queues to get in, but her disguise proves inadequate and the authorities march her off to a holding pen at the side of the stadium. She is soon joined by several other teenage girls who've been rumbled, and will later be handed over to the vice squad. The soldier in charge (Safar Samandar) is exasperated by this monstrous regiment; a country boy and, like his fellows, a conscript, he would rather be back home taking the cows out to pasture.

Panahi gradually establishes a dialogue between the female fans and their captors as the noise of the match ebbs and flows behind the wall. One soldier, amazed at their devotion to the team, points out that football isn't "a matter of life or death", and I only wished one of the girls had fired back Bill Shankly's famous saying: "No, it's more important than that." Another soldier, positioned at a gate where he can see the game, is asked to provide a running commentary - not an adequate substitute but at least a minor way of outwitting the state's legal offside trap. (The state is Islamist). Chauvinism spirals into absurdity when one girl, escorted by a soldier to the (male) toilets, is told to cover her eyes so she won't the read the graffiti scrawled over the urinals.

Panahi addressed the isolation and ostracism of Iranian women in his 2000 film The Circle. This is far less sombre, and by the end - Iran beat Bahrain 1-0, thank heavens - has made a good case for football not as a male preserve but as a bonding agent of national pride and togetherness. Whether the Iranian authorities see it this way is uncertain, but they're not going to let the people decide: Panahi's films have never been granted a release there. It is strange to see such fervent patriotism go unacknowledged by a state.