Lucid as it is, Offside raises many questions about how it was made and what it means for an Iranian audience. Once again Panahi was prevented from entering the U.S. (He was arrested at JFK in April 2001, en route from a Hong Kong film festival to one in Buenos Aires, cuffed, leg-chained, and sent back to Hong Kong; this time his visa was revoked.) But I spoke to him over the phone (and through a translator) last week while he was attending the Mar del Plata International Film Festival.
You used a soccer match in The Mirror—are you a fan? Definitely. I’ve followed it all my life. I sold refreshments in Azadi Stadium. But I’m using soccer as a symbol to show gender apartheid in Iran.
What exactly is the law regarding women and sports events? Our constitution allows for public gatherings of all people. But the only such permissible gatherings are pro-government rallies. The distinction between what is legal and what is allowed is completely blurred. For example, it is considered un-Islamic for women to see half-naked male athletes although these games are all televised.
Where did you find your actors? The girls are mostly students at Tehran University. They’re appearing in front of the camera for the first time. I had to go to Tabriz to find the Azeri soldier. We didn’t rehearse in a traditional sense. I put them in the situation and took it from there.
Is the dialogue scripted? Only to a point, because we couldn’t predict the outcome of the game.
Did you film during the actual match with Bahrain? Some scenes. These were mostly outside the stadium. I don’t like DV but I had to use it because 35mm would have been too conspicuous.
It sounds like you were making a documentary. How would the girls have been punished had the minibus reached the police station? I didn’t even research that. I was praying for the Iranian team to win so the girls wouldn’t be taken to the vice squad.
I understand that after Offside was made, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad lifted the ban on women.
Yes, he acted hastily and it backfired. He thought it might help his popularity with women. Instead, it forced the [Islamic leadership] to take a position against women attending soccer matches.
Had Ahmadinejad seen the movie? He never said so but he does have two consultants for cinematic affairs.
Offside wasn’t shown publicly in Iran. We planned to release it last spring, a month before the World Cup. Then bootleg DVDs flooded the market—so it was seen publicly without public screenings. There were many rumors about the origin of these DVDs. The government accused me of putting them out. But I think that the government allowed the bootleg to be produced in order to keep the movie from being shown in theaters.
Soccer can’t help but stir up nationalist sentiment. Is the final song a particular anthem? It was written 60 years ago and is the only patriotic song that does not celebrate the monarchy or the Islamic Republic. It’s timeless and the nationalist sentiments are not chauvinistic. I deliberately avoided using our national anthem.