It’s 2005 and Iran is in the throes of soccer pandemonium, as riotous buses packed with chanting fans make their way to a World Cup classifying match against Bahrain. Among the male passengers, young and old, are a number of female fans with football fever, although they’re officially banned from attending public sporting events.
Offisde follows one of these ladies, Sima Mobarak-Shahi, as, disguised androgynously—though everyone sees right through her—she makes her way to the game and tries to sneak past security. Of course, she’s almost immediately apprehended and herded off to a pen with a handful of other captured chicks.
Though set at a stadium and all about soccer, Offside offers only fleeting glimpses of the game; the big match takes place off-screen, watched by the soldiers obliged to guard the women through metal bars, and the bulk of the film is set against drab concrete walls. As something not quite reachable but just quite visible, the stadium serves as a subtle metaphor for independence; it’s described early on as a place of relative free rein in Iran, a place where, as one fan says, there’s shouting and swearing and yet no one calls in the Revolutionary Guard.
Mobarak-Shahi, though quickly stripped of the leading role (it becomes an ensemble piece, women vs. guards), keeps the film grounded with her sweet and achingly sympathetic looks of disappointment and her pangs of immature indignation and injustice. A humble film—conspicuously inexpensive—that bops right along thanks to the filmmakers’ energetic pacing, Offside carefully balances its serious message about Iran’s contemporary culture with humor, particularly a scene in which one of the imprisoned girls, who needs to pee, is brought to a men’s room (because there are no ladies’ rooms) and forced—absurdly, delightfully—to wear a poster as a mask so she can’t read the scatological writings on the stall’s walls.
Offisde is modest in its style and execution, even frequently light-hearted, but that’s not to say that it’s simple-minded; Panahi’s superficially engaging film cleverly uses the plight of the banned women (who’re more strong-willed than the men guarding them) to provide a microcosmic allegory for modern Iran, presenting a country with a crumbling power structure, with oppressive laws but little control over their enforcement. The Iranian people have no discernible respect for authority—the soldiers are harassed and abused by men and women alike, the latter picking at the logic of their exclusion to the consternation of the young guards just trying to do their jobs.
The young (male) soccer fans seem sympathetic to the young women’s plight, but are powerless to help because, well, the army’s got guns. Offside still maintains a sense of promise, though, of an Iran in flux and on the brink of change. The film ends with an Iranian victory in the big game and an overwhelming feeling of optimism. Iranians, equal in their national pride, empty into the streets for a celebratory eruption—the lines between men and women, soldiers and civilians dissolved, if only for a moment. Iran may have its problems of policy, the film suggests, but its people are, by and large, decent and good and slowly, in small ways, working to make their country free.