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Offside: Goal of equality

Iran's gender divide as seen through the World Cup

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In Iran, tradition bars women from attending the popular soccer matches that draw young men in droves. Offside opens on that supposedly minor social exclusion and illuminates the deeper, sadder gender divides that split the country.

As Offside begins, a young girl poorly disguised as a boy tries desperately to penetrate a gauntlet of security guards and soldiers. But like a small group of others, she is rounded up at Azadi Stadium during the Iran-Bahrain qualifying game for the World Cup. The girls are kept cordoned off like cattle and surrounded by equally young soldiers. They beg to be appraised of the game, but their pleas are ignored.

What initially appears to be a one-note message for equality in Iran enlarges in the hands of director Jafar Panahi (The White Balloon, The Circle), who co-wrote the script with Shadmehr Rastin.

As Offside progresses, the dynamic becomes less clear-cut. As the girls are put onto a bus headed for the vice squad, one girl – who has dressed as a soldier to enter the stadium – comically erupts into tears at the thought of being "court-martialed." A soft-spoken soldier, initially shocked at the bravado of these Tehran girls, warms a little to the girls' plight and provides hints of humanity beneath his official role as jailer.

As much as the girls – some fragile and feminine, others tough and swaggering – are trapped by their sex, the soldier finds himself trapped by his uniform and mandatory military service when all he wants to do is go home to his mother and his farm. Offside becomes a surprisingly tender picture of the sad gap between the sexes in Iran, but also offers a portrait of nationality, which ultimately binds these soldiers and soccer-mad young girls together.

Offside portrays a Middle East rarely seen in these days of war and terrorism, emphasizing the warmth and conviviality and ordinary humanity of its inhabitants. For that reason the film seems all the more necessary as a humanizing tale of a nation and its people in these volatile times.

Offside 3 stars. Directed by Jafar Panahi. Stars Sima Mobarakshai, Shayesteh Irani, Aida Sadeghi. Not Rated. Opens Fri., May. 25. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema. In Persian with English subtitles.

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