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Iranian Hot Spots
Jafar panahi's "Offside" in Rotterdam film fest

February 14, 2007

Each year the Hot Spots program of the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) scans the globe looking for those places where the creative energy has developed in unusual circumstances. This year the Hot Spots program focused on Bucharest (Romania) and Tehran (Iran) both capital cities which have experienced revolutions in recent decades. The Hot Spots program was intended to "tele-transport" the spectators in the Ro Theatre of Rotterdam to Bucharest or Tehran in order to experience the cultural life of these two revolutionary cities. Along with feature length and short films and videos, the Hot Spots program also included live musical performances, theatre, fashion, and the installations of graphic and audio visual artists.

Kees Brienen organized and hosted the four day Tehran Hot Spots program from January 30 to February 2. He explained that he decided to choose Tehran as a cultural "Hot Spot" in part due to its vibrant youth culture. He wanted to focus on Tehran when he found out that seventy percent of Iran's population is under thirty years-old which means that Tehran is the capital of one of the youngest countries in the world.

Brienen traveled to Tehran three times in March and April 2006. He was interested in finding out how with a population so young, Iranians dealt with the limitations of living in a theocratic society. He found that despite Iran's international isolation and the religious restrictions of the past decades, there has developed an enormous creative energy among film makers, artists and musicians and a desire to express their own identity in their own way in Tehran. Brienen discovered that the youth culture in Iran is modern, but not particularly 'Western.'

The Hot Spots Tehran program was spread over four evenings with each evening showing a feature length film; an assemblage of short films, as well as a live musical or artistic performance. The feature films which were: Sounds of "Silence" (Amir Hamz, 2006), "It's Winter" (Rafi Pitts, 2006), "We are all Fine" (Bizhan Mirbagheri, 2005) and "Offside" (Jafar Panahi, 2006).

The program included a presentation by Rezi Abedini, a graphic and audio visual artist and winner of the Prins Claus Fund 2006. His graphic art works were exhibited through out the theatre. There was a live performance by Mohsen Namjoo, an Iranian musician who creates a unique blend of traditional music and modern blues, as well as a live performance by Abjeez (Safoura en Melody Safavi) two sisters who played their own original brand of Persian world pop and by the Farsi-Rapper Reveal from London.

Reveal and the rapper Hich-Kas from Tehran together made the underground hit Tripee Maa. There was also a performance by the Iranian storyteller Sahand. A number of DJs and VJs finished off each evening program. The Hot Spots program was intended to offer an alternative and creative perspective of Iran which is not usually presented in the media. Each evening had the effect of immersing the audience in contemporary Iranian culture. It was truly a delightful and unique program and viewing experience for those living outside Iran.

Offside" (Jafar Panahi, 2006) is a beautiful, lively, and bitter-sweet film. It expertly and very effectively uses humor and social critique to tell a story. The story is set around the Iranian national football team's crucial qualifying match against Bahrain for entry to the 2006 World Cup Finals in Germany at the Azadi (freedom) Stadium in Tehran. Throngs of men are there to see the game. There is much excitement and jubilation among them and outside the stadium. There is even a blind man who has a ticket and is going to experience the match in person. But women and girls are excluded from this great celebration and fan-fair. Iranian law forbids women from attending football games. This fact is underlined in the film's opening sequence where a gray-haired man is looking for his daughter who is skipping her classes in order to sneak into the game.

"Offside" is about the adventure of six brave young women who are very passionate about Soccer and who are forced to take some desperate measures and dress as boys to try to get into the big game. But the powers to be frustrate their efforts. They are apprehended by the authorities and placed in a make-shift holding area just outside the stadium where they are watched over and guarded by a few young conscript soldiers. The young women anxiously wait to see what kind of punishment they will face for breaking the rules. But this is like torture for them because they are also so close to the game and they can hear the spectators cheer, chant, and go wild every time something interesting happens on the field.

Much of the film is the back and forth discussions and debates between the captives and their reluctant captors about the wisdom of the law banning women from stadiums. Instead of acting like victims, the young women are outraged and outspoken. They are very good at pointing out the contradictions and the absurdity of the ban and the justifications behind it. The young recruits from the provinces are naïve country boys who find themselves outmatched by the street wise city girls. They are mostly unable to answer them and their attempts to defend the ban and the status quo are feeble and unconvincing. At some point, they give up and confess that they are draftees only doing what they are told to do, eager to finish their service and not have it extended, so that they can go back to their farm life and to helping their parents with the cows and the harvest.

The story of "Offside" is very simple, and it is beautifully and lovingly told. It is funny and joyful, but it also has a darker and serious side. The young women must go to great lengths and a lot of trouble just for the simple pleasure of attending and enjoying a football match in person. This is because in Iran, women do not have equal rights and access, and are not treated equally in all levels and domains of society. The film is an unmistakable plea for women's rights. I think that one of the main points which is being driven home here is that on one hand, Iran in many ways is a society based on a medieval social model, and on the other, it exists in and is part of the contemporary world, a world which is increasingly interconnected. This makes many of its laws repressive, outdated, irrelevant, and arbitrary, because they are not rational and they have not emerged out of debates and discussions about the relevant issues, but their justification goes back to Sharia.

The film can also be seen as a metaphor for a much more common social and political predicament and a wider criticism of the current regime. The arbitrary limitation placed on the young women and their criticisms of the exclusionary laws also apply to Iran's music industry, its film industry and the whole official Islamic cultural outlook. In a sense, Iran is like the make-shift prison the young women are in. In Iran, the authorities informed by higher sources use their police power and censorship to protect Iranians and take away their free choice to make up their own minds. The title of the film is possibly also a reference to this overstepping of religious and political authorities into people's lives and affairs. The Iranian director Jafar Panahi like many (perhaps most) Iranians opposes this aspect of Iranian politics and society. Most of his films, including Offside, have been banned in Iran because they question the status quo.

The film has a non-professional cast who are very natural and engaging. The shooting is fluid and gives us a fly on the wall view of what is happening. The film is actually shot entirely outdoors and in the stadium and its vicinity before, during and after Iran's match with Bahrain in Tehran. These factors add up to give the film a lot of spontaneity and realism. "Offside" has won many awards, including the Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2006. It is Panahi's best and most thoughtful and upbeat film.

I specially liked the ending and thought that it was very hopeful and uplifting. The film ends with the footage of the cheerful, jubilant, and real-life celebrations of both sexes on the night streets of Tehran. It suggests that the repression of women will not last. The film also ends with the patriotic song 'Ey Iran' which is the most famous and possibly the most popular Iranian Anthem. It dates back to 1944, it is much older than the national anthem of the Islamic Republic, and its lyrics are not ideological or political in an obvious way. It was used as the national anthem in the period between the Shah's exile and the composing of the new Islamic Republic national anthem. So it touches and embraces Iranians everywhere. Comment

-Rotterdam, Netherlands

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