Offside (PG)

A dangerous game for girls
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I really hate to do this to you. You're probably reading this column because you're soccerphobic and seeking alternatives to World Cup fever - and what can I recommend to you this week? An Iranian football film. But don't worry, you won't see any actual football in Offside. Nor will the film's heroines.

Offside is about female football supporters in Iran. There's no law there against women being fans, but - despite a recent government decision, quashed by the religious authorities - it is illegal for them to attend matches. In Jafar Panahi's film, young women manage to get through the stadium turnstiles disguised as boys in plaid shirts, baseball caps, even military khaki; but this doesn't stop them being arrested and placed in an impromptu pen. Panahi's previous film about the situation of Iranian women, The Circle, was a harrowing ensemble drama. Offside is just as angry, but the tone is different. This time, Panahi has made a comedy: mocking, farcical, celebratory. Cultural specificity notwithstanding, you might call it a ladettes' rallying cry.

Panahi's great stunt in this low-budget production is to film at a Tehran stadium during an actual Iran-Bahrain match. Offside is a brilliant example of film as opportunism, shoehorning his story into a real event, giving the fiction a sharp documentary edge. Offside begins with two busloads of Iranian fans heading for the stadium. Among the flag-waving, trumpet-tooting lads are three determined girls in disguise: two pull it off with blustering bravado, while one shy neophyte keeps her head down, looking like an anxious 12-year-old boy. She hasn't gone undetected: one young man is troubled by her presence, till his friend discreetly advises him not to draw attention to her, to give her a chance. Throughout the film, the male fans are supportive to their undercover sisters: one boy obstructs a soldier so that a young woman can do a runner.

The individual men in Offside aren't unsympathetic, except for a grossly exploitative tout and a moany greybeard looking for his daughter (he doesn't find her but gives her best friend a hard time). Even the soldiers are just gauche, harassed young conscripts who feel foolish guarding women and would rather be watching the game. In the comic centrepiece, one private is asked to escort a captive on toilet break - she's actually planning her getaway - and hits on the brilliant idea of making her less conspicuous by having her wear a male mask, a poster of a star player with the eyes cut out. Panahi sends up the sexual anxiety of the Iranian male as the soldier confronts a tall, long-haired fan in the toilets. "Are you a boy or a girl?" he splutters. "Come in and I'll show you," mutters the giant, dragging him towards the stalls.

The soldiers explain that women must be kept out of stadiums for their own good, to protect their ears from male profanity. But any preconceptions about the meekness of Iranian women are blown sky-high by the film, which features as uppity a crowd of lasses as you'd find in any Rotherham nightclub. One newly captured young woman proudly struts in army fatigues, the others enthusiastically saluting her nerve. Another, the toughest of the lot, gives her captors lip until the young soldier in command is virtually praying to go back to his farm.

Panahi doesn't spoil the clarity of his premise by having his characters debate too obviously about the iniquity of the situation. The women themselves, aggrieved though they are, do their best to treat their detention as a joke. And when the joke wears off, Panahi deflates it subtly and concisely. Confronted by her friend's disapproving father, a disguised girl bows her head and, with a stage conjuror's legerdemain, lifts it again veiled in full chador - the colours of the Iran strip still greasepainted on her cheeks.

It only emerges late in the film that the women's detention is no laughing matter - they're to be carted off to the Vice Squad, and the soldier girl lets slip that if she had impersonated an officer, she would face execution. I'm not sure the happy ending rings true, but maybe Panahi didn't want to dampen his domestic audience's pleasure in an Iran victory.

While it's the more rarefied, poetic end of Iranian cinema (Kiarostami, The Makhmalbafs) that tends to be lionised, Panahi has arguably been underrated because he's a storyteller first and foremost, from his 1995 children's film The White Balloon to 2003's Crimson Gold, a realist crime story about a schizophrenic Tehran pizza courier. Offside shows Panahi letting his hair down (while his female cast pin theirs up): it feels like Ken Loach in his sparkier mode (Raining Stones, Sweet Sixteen). Political cinema is rarely this much fun; films about football never are.