Friday, March 23, 2007

New Film: Offside

Warning: the following post contains spoilers beginning in the second paragraph.

Jafar Panahi's Offside, the Iranian director's fifth feature, and the fifth to be banned in his home country, arrives in New York approximately twelve hours in advance of his President Ahmadinejad's scheduled arrival. This accident makes Offside perhaps the most timely New York premiere this spring, as the film extends Panahi's on-going account of social injustices -- particularly those against women -- in modern-day Iran. (That is, as we await the UN-sanctioned demagoguery of a world leader who has repeated voiced his desire to eliminate Israel and to eradicate the Jewish people from the face of the earth.)

In Panahi's latest, we glimpse the everyday injustices of Ahmadinejad's theocracy, where women are prevented from attending live sporting events, including Iran's final 2005 World Cup qualifier against Bahrain. Following a title that informs the spectator of this detail, as well as a second caption which claims that much of the film was shot at the stadium during said event, Panahi introduces us to an angry, albeit concerned father who is heading to the event to locate his daughter (before his sons can find her, whom he says would kill her). Subsequently, we are introduced to a female in disguise on a nearby bus, who we assume is the very girl noted above. As it will later turn out, she is not, though Panahi's film commences with following her attempts to enter the stadium. Therefore, it might be said that there is a certain interchangeability between the girls owing to their shared condition.

This young woman is immediately discovered, however, and is subsequently penned in with a group of her fellow male impersonators, just outside the stadium walls. As such, Panahi invents a formal analogue in the small visible cell positioned against the polyphonic off-screen stadium: that is, these young women, prevented from experiencing the public sphere on an equal basis with men, occupy a marginal space in relation to the larger, connoted off-camera space. Moreover, Panahi's utilization of tightly-framed mobile long takes further reinforces this dialectical relationship between theoretically separate on and off-camera spaces.

Of course, Panahi's use of long takes also succeeds in producing a facsimile of real time that has been the director's clearest stylistic device from his debut feature The White Balloon (1995). Here, the time of Offside is basically consubstantial with that of the game, concluding soon after the result is announced with the soldiers and the women celebrating in the nocturnal streets. (The game begins in late afternoon with Panahi charting the evening's transition to dusk.) In fact, within this coda, Pahani offers a glimpse of hope that is not unwarranted otherwise, provided his characterizations of the soldiers who guard the girls. While unwilling to break the law themselves, the soldiers seem to possess at least a flicker of sympathy. Hence, it might be said -- particularly when one considers the rebellion of the young women additionally -- that there is a reformative impulse in the people, even if the state remains irredeemably arcane.

In short, Offside continues Panahi's interrogation of Iranian social realities, culminating in another major work to stand beside his earlier highlights The White Balloon, The Circle (2000) and Crimson Gold (2003). However, unlike the first and third features listed above, Panahi's mentor Abbas Kiarostami did not pen the screenplay, which may account for an uncharacteristically underlined moment of psychological causality late in the film. Apart from this revelation, however, Offside remains a strong inheritor to the master's tradition, and once again confirms Panahi's status as Iran's greatest active filmmaker not named Kiarostami.

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