With World Cup 2006 kicking off in Germany, the release of Iranian director Jafar Panahi's 'Offside' is perfectly timed. While many people couldn't care less about football, for some it is worth risking everything for. This film is about seven female football fans that are desperate to be in the stadium where their country is playing its final World Cup qualifier. But, this being Iran, the women are forbidden from entering Tehran's Azadi Stadium so they have to disguise themselves as boys.
Captured before the game begins, the girls - in their baggy jerseys, baseball caps and, in one daring instance, an army uniform - are corralled by the side of the stadium for the duration of the match. They can hear the groans and the cheering but, frustratingly, they cannot see what is happening on the pitch and the young soldier that commentates seems to know little about football. Plus, they can look forward to being handed over to the vice squad at the end of the game.
Like Panahi's other films, including 'The White Balloon' (1995) and 2000's 'The Circle', 'Offside' is about the everyday struggles of ordinary Iranians - the girls who can't understand why they shouldn't be able to watch the match in person; an older traditionalist trying to prevent his daughter from going to the game; and the alternately sympathetic and exasperated soldiers who have to guard the captured girls.
The cast, as in Panahi's previous work, is made up of non-professional actors which, in a few cases, are not entirely convincing. Still, they must be applauded for managing to get the film made at all. In the main, it was shot without official permission in real time at Azadi Stadium as Iran beat Bahrain to win its place at this year's World Cup. On the other side of the stadium, women were being arrested for trying to get into the match by throwing themselves in front of international reporters. It's no surprise that Panahi's five films have never been officially screened in Iran.
As a film, 'Offside' is flawed but it does give a fascinating insight into a culture not exactly open to outside commentary. You may not be a fan of the beautiful game but you can still appreciate your fortune in being able to choose whether to watch a match or not. Thought provoking.