DEFYING CENSORSHIP: In Offside, Iranian teenage girls who, disguised as boys, beg, bribe and sneak their way into a football stadium so they can watch their beloved home team battle Bahrain for the championship. Theyre discovered, and arrested by young soldiers whod rather be watching the match themselves, but feel duty-bound to prevent the girls from doing so.
Cast in an American context, this story would be a lighthearted, entertaining teenage prank romp. As a product of Iran, it projects quite differently. Offside is a strong yet subtly understated indictment of gender apartheid that deprives women of human rights in Iran– and, by extension, in other countries.
Tehran-based director Jafar Panahi makes films that dont please his government. In fact, Offside and previous films, The Circle (2000) and Crimson Gold (2003) are officially banned in Iran– although theyve received international acclaim.
Weve had censorship problems since filmmaking in Iran was born. Its always been up to the filmmakers to find ways to still make their movies. We have to be constantly creative and inventive to do this because when you resort to a ploy for one film, you cant use that ploy again for another. You have to find another way to get around the censorship, says Panahi.
For The Circle, I waited nine months for a production permit. Then, former president Khatami (1997-2005) gave more freedom to newspapers and the newspapers said Jafar Panahi has proven himself as good filmmaker and should be allowed to make his new movie. There was so much pressure from the press that the censors allowed to make the movie. But they figured they could then deal with the movie itself.
MERIN: What was their issue with The Circle?
PANAHI: They never told us what was wrong with the script, just that under existing circumstances, such a script couldnt be turned into a movie. Normally, when they disallow a script, they tell the filmmaker specifically whats wrong, indicating should be cut or added, but in our case, they just said that the time isnt right for such a script.
MERIN: Were there problems with Offside? What ploy did you use?
PANAHI: Circumstances were different. Iran was transitioning from lame duck to new government, with campaigning and an election going on. The Deputy Minister in charge of Cinematic Affairs in the Ministry of Guidance threatened that if I didnt change my last film, Crimson Gold, they wouldnt allow me to make any more films. If I made changes, after a year, theyd allow me to make another movie. But, Offside is time-specific, as you know. The match between Iran and Bahrain was already scheduled and if I were to wait one year, it would have been after the game.
So I wrote a fake script and submitted it under someone elses name, and when we applied for the production permit– because after a script is accepted, you must get a shooting permit– I listed someone else as director. We shot the film in secrecy. Until about five days before the end of our shooting, nobody knew I was making a film. Then a newspaper found out, and ran a story, so the authorities found out. The police department sent me a letter that I need to have a permit, bur I was already done with the majority of the film– I just had to complete scenes inside the minibus at the end of the movie. So we went outside of Tehran, where we didnt need a permit, and finished the film.
MERIN: That ending, with all the cheering for Iran, seems quite nationalistic. Yet, youve not been allowed to show Offside in Iran, right?
PANAHI: Unfortunately we couldnt. Wed planned to show the film one month before the World Cup. The distributor was ready, but we couldnt get the permit.
MERIN: Have the girls seen it?
PANAHI: Yes, most have seen it because they live in Tehran. But also the film was shown at Fajr Film Festival in Tehran, but in a side section where it wasnt in competition for an award. But three days before the World Cup, bootleg DVDs were all over town. Many people have seen the film on DVD, but not in public screenings.
MERIN: Do you risk recrimination for having made the film?
PANAHI: Our punishment is just being subject to censorship. Therefore, theres a lot more pressure when were producing the movies. After movies are made, the fact is they cant do a whole lot– because were well-known filmmakers and if they do anything to us, they know there will be a public outcry.
MERIN: Did the actresses have problems?
PANAHI: No. In Iran weve never had a case of the authorities bothering actors. If theres any person they target, its always the filmmaker.
MERIN: As a filmmaker, how would you characterize your social role and your body of work?
PANAHI: I make films about restrictions, all those things that keep people from going about their lives the way they want to, and denying them their natural rights. Im not an idealistic filmmaker who thinks my movies can cause profound and radical changes. My only hope is that my movies will provoke people to think, especially about the nature of those restrictions, and whether they should be subject to them– including whether theyre allowed to see my movies or not. Im only showing existing social conditions, not saying whether or not they should exist. Thats for people to decide.
As I mentioned, censorship existed in Iran before and after the revolution. In countries like this, its filmmakers must ways to say what they want, make their movies despite censorship. The situation has gown increasingly worse, but were still making our movies.
I think that looking at this from outside, you see this as a harsher picture because there are nuances that evade you. When youre in Iran, youre aware of nuances and find ways to maneuver. There are many other countries– like the former Soviet Union– where there was censorship, where they made great movies. So it goes back to the creativity of the filmmakers and how they rise above circumstances.
MERIN: Can you see American films in Iran? What are your American influences?
PANAHI: Every filmmakers influenced by the whole history of cinema. Is it possible for a filmmaker not to fall in love with Hitchcock and Ford and others like them? But then their movies become your experiences. You bring those experiences to your own point of view. There was a time right after the revolution where there was a ban on American films in Iran. They gave two reasons– first, that the movies were American, and second, because they had violence and sex in them. But gradually Iranian television began showing American films, but mostly films critical of the American government and values. Sometimes theyd change things when dubbing them into Farsi, to make them more critical of the American way of life and the violence. Now, public theaters show American films, but people dont go to see them because they know theyre censored. They find bootleg copies of the original movies in the underground market, and watch them instead of seeing the censored versions.
MERIN: Is finding bootleg copies easy?
PANAHI: Very easy. Any movies shown in America, you can find bootleg copies in Iran. If theyre really popular, people subtitle them in Farsi, and flood the market with them.
MERIN: Whats next?
PANAHI: It takes me three years to make a movie. Right now, Im sorting out some ideas. One or two are more appealing and Im trying to put a script together.
MERIN: Might you make films based on traditional Iranian arts– Tazieh, for example?
PANAHI: I incorporate tradition in my films. The song that ends of Offside, for example, is from 61 years ago. It has nationalistic sentiments that have nothing to do with the government ruling Iran. That song is a picture of Irans past glory. I underscores what Im showing in Offside– how womens rights have been curtailed by gender apartheid. The censors dont like that.
Im really not sure what makes me go after a subject. First I judge cinematic value, and then think about what Im going to say. I never mention root causes of problems. I let audiences think for themselves and discover causes. I think if you point out that religion is behind all these problems, youre editorializing and youre limiting the audience. I dont like that. I want audiences to be free to make their own judgments.