Thursday, December 14, 2006

Miles Offside

The Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi started off life in film as assistant director to the magisterial Abbas Kiarostami, an apprenticeship he achieved as a result of reading John Baxter's biography of Luis Bunuel, and being inspired to write to Kiarostami and ask for a job, just as Bunuel did in his youth. As cutting one's teeth in cinema go, it doesn't get better than that and Panahi has not squandered what he has learned. His debut film The White Balloon, a beautifully subtle children's film set on Iranian New Year's Eve won the Caméra d'Or at Cannes in 1994 and since then he has won the Golden Lion at Venice in 2000 for The Circle and also made Crimson Gold, two films which are among the greatest made anywhere in the world so far this decade. Panahi studied closely Kiarostami's method of filming and mounting fiction among a reality so fluid, shifting and uncertain that one never knows where the film might end up, forever being at the mercy of the vicissitudes of Iranian power changes, between judiciary and legislature, a quality that, as I have noted elsewhere before, is not too different from the 'Great Satan', the US.

Panahi's new film Offside focuses on the efforts of women, mainly working class Teheranis, to watch the decisive Iran-Bahrein World Cup qualifier of last October, in defiance of a law forbidding their presence, for the typically insane reason of 'defending their honour'. As in The Circle, which treated of the efforts of Iranian prostitutes and other 'loose livers' to evade the moral police, Panahi is courageously on the side of the fairer sex, and in this case his film was successful enough to persuade head head-the-ball Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to change the law and allow women into the stadiums. The film starts, as ever with Pahani, in media res, on a bus carrying football fans out to the stadium on the outskirts of Teheran. There are a number of women who find themselves coralled by the military police on duty for infractions of the law and Panahi constructs the drama around successive episodes that show up the law, and by extension Iranian society, for the insane absurdity that it is, such as the bravura sequence where a young woman, desperate to pee, eventually persuades her inflexible guard to let her go to the toilets. When there he instructs her to avert her eyes from the coarse Farsi graffiti on the toilet walls. The fact that the earthy female captives give as good as they get renders this act doubly absurd.

The women are all photographed without their chador, though crucially not with their hair uncovered (a restriction that Kiarostami circumvented in Ten by filming a shaven-headed young woman), though even still, filming women in baseball caps and military uniforms, in intentionally androgynous get-up is a risky and courageous act by the director, not to mention his actresses. Things such as these demonstrate how Iranian film directors must make do without freedoms that Western directors take so for granted that they abuse them readily, restrictions that have paradoxically turned Iranian cinema into one of the most thematically and formally inventive in the world. The film ends with celebrations among captors and captives alike as Iran qualify for Germany - though the fate of the women is still uncertain - and Panahi's filming of the street celebrations afterwards is breathtaking in its technical mastery; to shoot such a film on the night of the game itself - and much of it in the stadium - is astonishing. But then Panahi, like his mentor Kiarostami and the Makhmalbafs, and other filmmakers like Abol-fazl Jalili, has long been accustomed to fit his fiction to the template of everyday life and its potentially recalcitrant permutations. Offside may not be as rounded nor as possessed of such depth as his previous two films but it is still a remarkable feat of filmmaking. And, despite Kiarostami's mastery, Panahi has, by now made Teheran his own; when the provincial soldiers scold Teheran women for their outrageous morals, you can feel the glint of pride in the eye of the camera. Proud of being offside in the Mullahs' Iran.