Jafar Panahi On Offside
Iranian cinema has produced numerous giants—Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf are only two of the most renowned—but Jafar Panahi has quickly become one of the country’s most accomplished and controversial filmmakers. In Panahi’s latest, Offside, the director of The White Balloon and Crimson Gold again turns his attention to the treatment of women in the Islamic Republic. Set in real time during the Iran-Bahrain qualification match for the most recent World Cup and shot in a neo-realist style, the film follows a group of young women who disguise themselves as men in order to sneak into a male-only soccer stadium.
Given the Iranian government’s response to Crimson Gold and The Circle, how did you manage to get this film made at all?
In Iran, you have to submit your script for approval to the Ministry of Guidance. And if you have police in the film—as was the case in Offside—you have to get the police department’s approval too. After you’ve shot and edited everything, you then have to approach the Ministry again for a screening permit. The censors said, “For you to make your next movie, you will need to cut out all of the objectionable scenes from Crimson Gold and have it shown and then wait for a year and then re-approach us.” I realized that that would be stupid, because I wanted to make Offside right away. If I had followed their prescriptions, I would have missed the Iran-Bahrain match. I needed that game to be the setting of the film, so we skipped all those steps. We wrote a different script under the name of the person who appears as the co-screenwriter on Offside, listing my assistant’s name as the director. Up until five days before the end of the shoot, the authorities still believed that we were shooting my assistant’s movie. When a film daily leaked the fact it was my film, the authorities demanded that we submit our rushes.
What is the present state of the relationship between Iran’s film community and the Iranian state?
All filmmakers are affected in one way or another by the political conditions in Iran. Even filmmakers that produce commercial films are affected. In fact, they have it worse. They are under more pressure. They rely on the Iranian market for their films to sell. They don’t have the access to the foreign film market that art house filmmakers do. They can’t get their movies into festivals like this or on to satellite stations outside of the country. Because of their reliance on the Iranian market, they have to give in to the censors and restrictions far more than we do. If they don’t play by the rules, there’s nowhere else to show their movies.
The film relies so much on the celebration that follows Iran’s win over Bahrain. What would you have done if Iran had lost the game?
I have no idea. We just prayed that they would. It wasn’t just that we wanted them to win, but we needed Iran to score in the second half. Fortunately everything worked out that way.
How much of what’s on film was pre-written and how much was improvised?
The overall structure of the film and the script was set down, but we would re-write sections depending on certain real events that occurred while we were shooting. We obviously knew who the girls were, who was going to get in first and who was going to follow. But on the day of the game, certain things happened which forced us to re-structure later scenes. The film took 39 days to shoot. Only certain scenes were shot in the stadium on the day of the game. We took what we had from the shoot on that day and then adapted everything else that would happen after. But yes, a good deal of what happened in the stadium was unplanned. For example, there is a scene where you see one of the girls buy a ticket and a player’s poster. That was scripted. But as she’s going through, one of the guards grabs her hat, asks her who she is and what she’s doing there and she runs away. We had never predicted that that would happen, but we opted to use it in the film. We just made an adjustment and started the next scene with her running away. I was never really in control. The circumstances dictated how I was forced to proceed.
Do you enjoy working that way? Most directors would find that a very uncomfortable place to work from.
When I was a film student, I really admired Hitchcock’s work. I was especially fond of how he had a tight shooting script for every scene. I tried to follow in his footsteps and create very detailed shooting scripts of my own for each shot. I worked that way for a long time, but whenever I screened my movies, I felt that there was something lacking in them. It was spontaneity. It was the spirit my films were lacking. As I became a professional filmmaker, I gradually abandoned that approach and allowed for that kind of spontaneity to exist. So what might be a nightmare situation for others is, for me, a blessing. That’s what contributes to the spirit that enlivens my movies; it helps make them realistic reports on what is going on in society.
You say you aren’t a political filmmaker, but one who merely records social conditions. How do you walk that line?
You’re right. There’s a very narrow margin there. If you aren’t clever, you can easily slip. Regardless of what kind of socially committed movie you are trying to make, there will eventually be political consequences. As a “political” filmmaker, you have to take a very clear stand concerning what is right and what is wrong in a society. You have to function almost like a political party, making statements concerning how things should be. I’m not trying to issue ideological statements. I’m just interested in showing what exists, leaving the judgment to the audience. A political statement has an expiration date. I’m not interested in making movies with an expiration date. My movies need to survive even after the cultural conditions they document cease to exist. That’s why I try to give sympathetic portraits of all my characters. Take the guards in Offside for instance. Most people don’t like the police because they are symbols of dictatorial authority at a time when many people are unhappy with conditions. So people get angry that I make the guards sympathetic.
I find that the film ends with a great deal of hope, a hope that is tied directly to the national pride that explodes as Iran wins the game. Are you hopeful for Iran’s future?
You must remain hopeful about the future of your country.