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Iranian Jafar Panahi’s comedy is about a group of girls who are arrested for dressing up as boys and trying to get in to see the 2006 World Cup Iran/Bahrain qualifier, women not being allowed to watch football in Iran. Accessing another country’s culture through football is a neat way of curving a ball past those who “don’t do arthouse”. The anti-subtitle crowd might also be interested to learn that the film was shot on the hoof, guerrilla style at the actual game in Tehran, using non-professional actors. Painting a picture of a country that seems at first almost barbaric in its medieval world view, Panahi isn’t so western focused that he can’t show us the odd upside to the strict Islamic way of life. Women, though obviously circumscribed in what they can do, do seem to have some advantages – they are treated with courtesy and are not the focus of sexual barracking and undressing looks (imagine a football game in the west). Panahi also shows us the similarities between “them” and “us” – in other words it’s nice to see people we know little about wearing Ronaldo shirts. Football goes where politics and religion fear to tread. Ultimately, though, let’s not be too cute – this is a critique of a conservative society (“Men and women are not the same” as one dim soldier tells one of the plucky girls he is now guarding, until someone can work out what’s to be done with them), a trenchant critique of the ayatollahs, a snapshot of a country that’s plainly gaga over the beautiful game and an atmospheric mood piece. Not bad for one small film. Not surprisingly, it’s banned in Iran.

Offside – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2006

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