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Cinema Junkie by Beth Accomando

Offside

Iran has been in the news for its continued defiance of the International Atomic Energy Agency. But while the countrys policies stir controversy, one of its top filmmakers works toward diplomacy. Jafar Panahis Offside (opening May 11 at Landmark's Ken Cinema) not only allows Americans to better understand Iranian culture but it also prompts Iranians to look at themselves in new ways.

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Jafar Panahi's Offside

In Jafar Panahis latest film Offside , a group of Iranian girls disguise themselves as boys in order to sneak into a World Cup match. The girls passion prompts them to defy the law banning females from sporting events in Iran. Apparently women need to be protected from male sports fans that might become rowdy or profane.

CLIP Sounds of crowd chanting at stadium Iran will riddle you with goals.

But the girls are caught and placed in a holding area at the top level of the stadium. Now theyre far from the action they had so desperately wanted to see up close. As they await transportation to prison, they hear the tantalizing sounds of the game. The girls must now rely on their captors for the play by play. The agony of being denied access to the game prompts the girls to challenge the flustered soldiers. The soldiers, who are not much older than their prisoners, are unable to come up with a convincing argument in defense of the absurd laws theyre made to enforce.

The fiery debate these women engage in reveals a surprisingly rebellious new generation emerging in Iran. Filmmaker Jafar Panahi says that doesnt like to think of his films as political because politics can become quickly dated. So Panahi uses sportswhich has a timeless and universal appealas a clever and easily accessible way of framing a story about social issues in Iran. The title Offside is both a soccer term and a metaphor for the girls defiance of the rules and willingness to take a penalty in order to try and advance their cause.

Panahi's films represent an evolution, and Offside is best understood in the context of his body of work. In his first two film, The White Balloon and The Mirror , he dealt with young girls challenging social restrictions. Then in The Circle he followed a group of women prisoners whose only crime was their refusal to conform to the traditional roles society had set out for them. Panahi has said that the women in The Circle represent the little girls from his earlier movies grown up.

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Offside

Offside , like his other films,was banned in Iran. It continues to highlight the contrast between what society expects of women and what women are beginning to expect from themselves. But this time Panahi allows for greater optimism. The teen girls and twentysomething females of Offside reveal potential for a vibrant future in Iran. In the pointed exchanges between the prisoners and guards, we sense that this is a generation that will not be denied.

The grim fate of the women in The Circle casts a shadow over the lively optimism of Offside . Yet Offside proves as defiant as its characters. It serves up not only hope but humor. The overwhelming absurdity of the situation, and Panahis insistence on challenging it, creates considerable comedy. In one of the films funnier sequences, one of the girls desperately needs to use the bathroom and must be escorted by a male soldier. He insists that she wear a poster of an Iranian soccer star over her face so no one can see that shes a girl. Then he tries to clear the bathroom of men.

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Offside

CLIP Soldiers orders everyone out of the bathroom.

Finally he insists she cover her eyes so as not to see the obscene graffiti on the bathroom walls. But while the tone is lighter here than in Panahis other films, his comments are no less biting. He still sees the legal and social restrictions placed on women as human rights abuses that need to be addressed. Only this time he hopes that by pointing out the absurdity of the situation rather than potential tragedy will help to prompt change.

Once again Panahi relies on non-actors to bring his film to life. The young women he has chosen are a bold, dynamic lot. They seem much smarter and more confident than the men. Panahi lets the film play out with the unrehearsed feel of a documentary. Theres an unforced fluidity and spontaneity that fuels the film with buoyant energy.

CLIP Cheers and celebration in the streets.

The film ends with the Iranian soccer team's defeat of Bahrain. The city explodes in celebration. At first the gunfire and firecrackers make you think Tehran is under attack. But you quickly realize that youre witnessing a transcendent moment as a nation rejoices in victory. Its a moment where anything seems possible. Directors like Jafar Panahi and the feisty, intelligent women of his film make a bright future seem possible for Iran even as the country faces continued conflicts.

Companion viewing: The White Balloon, The Mirror, The Circle, Bend It Like Beckham