Jafar Panahi chats with Jennifer Merin re “Offside”

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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. They’re discovered, and arrested by young soldiers who’d 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 don’t please his government. In fact, “Offside” and previous films, “The Circle“ (2000) and “Crimson Gold“ (2003) are officially banned in Iran– although they‘ve received international acclaim.

“We’ve had censorship problems since filmmaking in Iran was born. It’s 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 can’t 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 couldn’t be turned into a movie. Normally, when they disallow a script, they tell the filmmaker specifically what’s wrong, indicating should be cut or added, but in our case, they just said that the time isn’t 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 didn’t change my last film, “Crimson Gold,” they wouldn’t allow me to make any more films. If I made changes, after a year, they’d 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 else’s 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 didn’t need a permit, and finished the film.

MERIN: That ending, with all the cheering for Iran, seems quite nationalistic. Yet, you’ve not been allowed to show “Offside” in Iran, right?

PANAHI: Unfortunately we couldn’t. We’d planned to show the film one month before the World Cup. The distributor was ready, but we couldn’t 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 wasn’t 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, there’s a lot more pressure when we’re producing the movies. After movies are made, the fact is they can’t do a whole lot– because we’re 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 we’ve never had a case of the authorities bothering actors. If there’s any person they target, it’s 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. I’m 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 they’re allowed to see my movies or not. I’m only showing existing social conditions, not saying whether or not they should exist. That’s for people to decide.

As I mentioned, censorship existed in Iran before and after the revolution. In countries like this, it’s filmmakers must ways to say what they want, make their movies despite censorship. The situation has gown increasingly worse, but we’re 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 you’re in Iran, you’re 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 filmmaker’s 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 they’d 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 don’t go to see them because they know they’re 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 they’re really popular, people subtitle them in Farsi, and flood the market with them.

MERIN: What’s next?

PANAHI: It takes me three years to make a movie. Right now, I’m sorting out some ideas. One or two are more appealing and I’m trying to put a script together.

MERIN: Might you make films based on traditional Iranian arts– Tazi‘eh, 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 Iran‘s past glory. I underscores what I‘m showing in “Offside”– how women’s rights have been curtailed by gender apartheid. The censors don‘t like that.

I’m really not sure what makes me go after a subject. First I judge cinematic value, and then think about what I’m 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, you’re editorializing and you’re limiting the audience. I don’t like that. I want audiences to be free to make their own judgments.

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is also a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).