IN Iran, everyone loves a good soccer match.
But female fans are forbidden from attending public games, as "Offside," a new film directed by Jafar Panahi, depicts in both comic and incisive detail. Ever since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, strict rules have limited the interaction of women and men in Iran. Just last year, Iranian President (and avowed soccer fan) Mahmoud Ahmadinejad tried to lift the ban on women at soccer matches, but the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, refused to allow it.
"Offside" -- which opens in Los Angeles on Friday -- tackles the issue with a bluntness that is rare in Iranian cinema but characteristic of the 46-year-old Panahi, one of the nation's most outspoken and internationally celebrated directors.
"At this particular time, he's one of the only filmmakers who is daring and not afraid to protest," said Jamsheed Akrami, a film scholar who has made several documentaries about Iranian cinema. "His films are direct attempts to expose inequality and injustice throughout Iranian society."
But "Offside" has a much lighter tone than Panahi's last two films: "The Circle," a blistering account of oppressed Iranian women, and "Crimson Gold," a sort of Tehrani "Taxi Driver" about a disenfranchised pizza delivery man. In fact, the film offers an upbeat portrait of life inside the "axis of evil."
"I'm a little optimistic, and I'm not sure where this is coming from," Panahi said recently by phone from Tehran, "because everything happening around us points to despair and hopelessness." Panahi had been scheduled to arrive in the U.S. to promote the film this month, but he underestimated the time it would take to get a visa, though he may still arrive after the movie opens.
Such a rebuff is slight compared to the treatment Panahi encountered in the U.S. six years ago. During a stopover at JFK airport between international film festivals, he refused on principle to be fingerprinted by American authorities and was chained to a bench for 10 hours. But Panahi holds no ill will toward the U.S. He visited Los Angeles' AFI International Film Festival without incident last November. And if he can't come to promote "Offside," he hopes it can serve as its own cultural ambassador.
Shot during Iran's World Cup qualifying match against Bahrain in 2005, the film follows six young women -- a mix of bad girls dressed as men and teens with the colors of the Iranian flag painted on their faces -- who are penned up by soldiers just outside Tehran's Azadi "Freedom" stadium.
The women are wily adversaries, ridiculing, debating and negotiating with their captors to get to see the game and persuading a soldier to give a play-by-play commentary of the match.
"There is a dialogue in the movie between the soldiers and the girls, and their conversation is an indication that the Iranian people can resolve their own problems," said the filmmaker. "Unfortunately, the tensions that exist today, and this talk of whether there is going to be a war or not, is diverting us from following that path of constructive dialogue."
In the film, Panahi also defuses the tension with humor. A hapless soldier just can't sustain a persuasive argument for the ban when the most aggressive tomboy asks why women can't watch soccer matches but men and women can sit together in a movie theater -- in the dark.
But Panahi isn't going soft on the Islamic regime he has criticized, both obliquely, in "The White Balloon," his deceptively simple 1995 debut about a little girl who wants a goldfish, and more overtly in "The Circle" and "Crimson Gold."
"My movies are about limitations and restrictions, and these are restrictions that I've personally experienced," he said. "This kind of restriction that we have made 'Offside' about is really a small thing relative to the greater restrictions that Iranian women are suffering from."
A determined 12-year-old
PANAHI got the idea for the film five years ago when his daughter, 12 at the time, came with him to a soccer game. As he predicted, she was refused entry. "But then 10 minutes later, she showed up," Panahi remembered. "I said, 'How did you get in?' And she said, 'Where there's a will there's a way.' "
That same willfulness parallels Panahi's own attempts to get "Offside" made. After "The Circle" and "Crimson Gold" were banned from theatrical release in Iran, the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance announced he would not be allowed to make another movie until he reedited those films and spent a year on hiatus.
"That left me with nothing to resort to except playing a trick on them," Panahi said. "I gave them a different script with a different filmmaker's name, and that's how we started filming." Now "Offside" is also banned in Iran. While that may sting Panahi personally, it won't affect his work.
"Censorship has always existed in Iranian cinema," he said. "It's a credit to the cleverness of the Iranian filmmakers, both before and after the revolution, that they still make their own movies."