In Iran, where a fundamentalist religious minority rules, the country's internationally celebrated humanist filmmakers are often at odds with the regime but traditionally tolerated because they provide Iran with a humane international face.
While filmmakers such as Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Jafar Panahi are celebrated at international film festivals for their poetic, humanistic fables, their films often go unseen by their own countrymen. Subject to censorship from the script level,
Iranian filmmakers employ a variety of stratagems -- allegory, indirect argument and symbolism -- to suggest what can't be said directly. After a while, interviewers get used to hearing Iranian filmmakers deny any political intentions, assert the benefits of state-managed filmmaking and avoid criticism of their country's Islamic fundamentalist revolution. Not so with Jafar Panahi, who is refreshingly candid about social injustice. The 46-year-old director made his first documentary in the 1980s about the 10-year-long, Iran-Iraq war in which he served as a soldier.
After working as an assistant on Kiarostami's Through the Olive Trees (1994), Panahi made his own first feature film, The White Balloon (1995). Since then he has emerged as one of the most popular and provocative of Iranian filmmakers.
All of his films, he has said, are about "restriction, limitation, confinement and boundaries." In the last few years, he has released The Circle, about the persecution of Iranian prostitutes, and Crimson Gold, about a socially rejected war veteran turned criminal. His current film, Offside, is about a group of girls who are arrested for dressing as men to try to sneak into a soccer game.
Panahi, talking through a translator at last fall's Toronto International Film Festival, explained: "It's not really a film about soccer. It's a film about women in Iran, who are still subject to discriminatory laws, regarding such basic things as property ownership and divorce, for example. Soccer was a just a starting point."
Originally, Panahi submitted a less controversial script to censors to get approval, but authorities, annoyed about the social criticism in his earlier films, delayed granting him a production licence.
He went ahead and shot his film, using non-professional actors and shooting parts of it on digital video, documentary-style against the background of Iran's qualifying World Cup match against Bahrain, with the plot's outcome dependent on the outcome of the game (Iran won, providing the movie's climactic celebration). The story follows seven girls who dress up as boys to sneak into the soccer match and end up arrested, held in a make-shift holding pen, and guarded by unsophisticated, country-boy soldiers.
The action tips to farce when one of the soldiers must escort one of the girls to the men's washroom.
Like most of Panahi's films, Offside has not been shown publicly in Iran though was widely seen on pirate DVDs, and helped effect a brief social thaw. In an effort to win more support from women, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad permitted women to attend soccer. The decision was later overturned by the Islamic leadership.
Now is not a good time for social reform in Iran. The current stand-off with the United States about Iran's nuclear program, says Panahi, has done nothing to make life for liberal-minded Iranian artists any easier. "The idea that filmmakers are somehow a benefit to the government because of our international success really doesn't matter now. The confrontation with the United States has just provided a justification to crack down."
Three years ago, he was invited to see the government minister in charge of film policy, who bluntly asked him why he hadn't left the country yet.
"What would I do?" asks Panahi. "My job is to document the evolution of my culture, not what's going on somewhere else. As long as I can find some way to make films, that's what I'll do."