Was Jafar Panahi Arrested For His Queer Activism?

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On January the 26th, 2011, Centre Sofil screened “Offside”, the third film of the tribute to the Iranian director Jafar Panahi.

The film addresses the prohibition Iranian women face to attend football matches, telling the story of some girls trying to enter Teheran’s stadium in an attempt to assist to the World Cup qualification match between Iran and Bahrein. We follow the adventures of five girls that are arrested and detained on the roof of the stadium, waiting to be transferred to the Vice Squad headquarter.

The film’s slow rhythm allows the public to appreciate the director’s fine irony. The tailored details of the story picture Iranian society and highlight the contradictions of sexual segregation. Unfortunately, his determination to address such sensitive issues led to a legal sanction which prevented him from film making and from giving interviews to the media, in addition to his detention.

The director, with his surreal touch, presents a critical situation with a light -“comedy like”- cut that allows the detainees to express themselves and to interact in a peer-to-peer relationship with their guards. The power relationship presented in the movie shows us – in a non stereotyped way – the different aspects of women status in Iranian society.

The moral prohibition for Iranian men to touch a woman who doesn’t belong to his family gives to the detainees a certain degree of protection from abuse and makes it possible for one of them to disappear in the crowd.

The soldier’s lack of familiarity in dealing with women leads him to lose control over her while she is in the toilet.

The director’s gaze underlines how this rhetoric of segregation and respect, as a mean of oppression in the hands of authorities, can be re-interpreted by women to develop their exit strategy. In this perspective, the film warns us not to condemn such model in comparison to the “egalitarian” one without considering opportunities and threats inherent to each of them.

On the other hand, the contradictions inherent to patriarchal systems can also give way to further victimization of the oppressed. One of the girls doesn’t have the entry ticket. Her only possibility is to buy it on the illegal market. When the seller doubles the price of the ticket, he shows how laws restricting freedom of choice blackmail women, making them vulnerable in front of those who are in the position to satisfy their denied needs.

The film also sheds the lights on the social performance of the female body. The physical appearance of the actresses offers a spectrum of different nuances of femininity, regardless of the masculine dress code trough which they are presented in the movie. One of the girls covers her masculine clothes with the chador – a symbol of feminine dress code – as a reaction to her old neighbor staring at her. He suddenly recognizes her and the spectator’s perception of the girl’s appearance radically changes. It thus becomes evident how gender is constructed through cultural costumes rather than determined by biology.

The biological body emerges here as raw material that can be shaped by culture into gender constructions. We wonder if Jafar Panahi is fully aware of such groundbreaking contribution to queer movement.

The director shows a remarkable ability to justify the behavior of the characters in its human, non-stereotyped dimension. Thanks to this, the public is enabled to be compassionate with each and every character regardless of their role. Even the most radical feminist might understand the stand point of the old neighbor: he actually wants to shamefully beat the girl for being at the stadium because of his meritorious concern for her University studies.

The gendered conflict among female football fans and male army soldiers is resolved at the end of the movie in the common joy for the victory of the national team. Such feeling of compassion is anticipated when the girl who escaped in the toilets comes back under custody, giving up her desire to see the match. The girl’s choice aims to avoid the punishment of the soldier. Such cross-cultural solidarity between a Teherani girl and a Tabrizi soldier will allow him to finish his military service in time to crop his land.

Although comedy proves to be an amazing tool to spot the inconsistencies of women discrimination as well as the complexity of the cultural constructions behind it, the director’s irony didn’t protect him from state repression.

It is not the aim of the film to picture the possible consequences of insubordination to authority in the country. Nevertheless, the director proves his awareness of the tragic background behind his plot, reminding us of the death of seven people killed during the political demonstration that followed the football match Japan-Iran in 2005, preventing a misleading interpretation of the film’s happy ending.

- Cntributed by Camilla and Giulia

Guest Contributor

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