boys in the girls’ room, girls in the men’s room
February 22, 2011 § 6 Comments
[Am reposting this as part of the Iranian Film Blogathon taking place at The Sheila Variations from February 21 - 27, 2011. This is a series of meandering observations of the excellent The Circle and pales in comparison to some of the excellent write-ups that are already part of the blogathon, but this is a great opportunity to spread the word about Jafar Panahi, so...]
If Jafar Panahi’s The Circle was about the prison that surrounds women in modern Iranian society, then Offside is a Lysistrata-esque comedy about how the concept of prison can be readily turned in on itself. The Circle left such a potent impact, but its tragedy was the banal, everyday kind. What makes it so tragic is the way in which it shows how thinking, intelligent people can still, somehow, together form an unthinking, flawed society. Offside is playful and reminds me of Lysistrata precisely because it is also interested in dismantling the inherent – and seemingly necessary – hypocrisies and absurdities that sustain a male-dominated society through its endlessly-inventive and creative female characters.
This is shown quite wonderfully through the film’s smart dialogue and idiosyncratic characters. The story begins with the first girl (the characters are nameless) who has disguised herself as a boy and boarded the bus taking spectators to the stadium for a football match between the Iranian and Bahraini national teams. The attempt at disguise is not entirely successful from the start – at most, it is minimal – hair tucked in under a cap, and loose, baggy clothes. Playing on the very idea of gender performance early on, one of the young men who first notices the girl in the bus cannot take his eyes off her. As his friend says, “you always lose it over girls.” This friend, meanwhile, had already noticed this interloper and having seen girls and women do this before, magnanimously tries to avoid paying attention to the girl. He tells his staring friend that looking at the girl will only bring about unwanted attention which is precisely what this girl-unsuccessfully-disguised-as-boy is trying to avert. A little later, when a minor ruckus causes all the passengers to rush out of the bus in chase of their runaway driver, the girl goes up to this boy and asks him to stop staring at her – or he’ll blow her cover. He’s a tiny bit smitten and puffs up a little to step up to the knight-in-shining armour pedestal, telling her not to worry, he’ll help her get in. She says “I don’t need your help,” and in one of the best lines of the movie, the guy wonders out loud how she could bring herself to say this, since, as he tells her, “You look… like a total girl.”
Once the girl gets to the stadium, however, her real troubles begin. “I can’t let you go into a crowd of men. I’m no bastard. You could be my sister,” the ticket-scalper tells her. In Panahi’s depictions, there is something gentle and sincere about most of the men in this rigidly patriarchal society. Most of them aren’t out to assert power or dominate; they just don’t want these women to get into trouble. But with a wry wink to the audience, Panahi gives us an overly-concerned ticket scalper who still tries to find a profit where he can – and therefore sells her a ticket at nearly double the price after extending unwanted solicitude about her situation. His only concern, as it turns out, is to assure the Other that he’s done his part to “protect” this girl from whatever insidious harms are out there. As for the girl herself, he could care less, obviously.
Looking ahead at pre-TSA TSA-style patdowns before spectators are allowed to enter the cinema, the girl is agitated. When she gets to the security line, she blurts out “Please don’t check me!” unwittingly outing herself to the security personnel who just moments ago was about to blithely and unthinkingly pat her down. It is inevitable; even in disguise as a boy, or perhaps especially when in disguise as a boy, one’s fact of femaleness must somehow announce itself, almost as if to distinguish itself from a vast sea of maleness that infiltrates the entire venue. She is busted, naturally, and taken by a soldier to the “holding pen” behind the stadium, erected precisely to keep in these errant females, of which there are quite a few. It’s the most awful of punishments, as the girls can still hear the game – every cheer, every shout – whilst having not one clue what’s going on. One of the soldiers – let’s refer to him as commentator-soldier – gamely tries to give the imprisoned girls a play-by-play account of the match, but is soundly mocked when he inserts his favourite player into the game even though this particular playing is, well, not playing in the match. Curiously enough, none of the male soldiers here seem half as interested in football as the girls, and the commentator-soldier’s incompetent grasp of both football and the match that is going on is just another absurd and all-too-real twist to the proceedings. The moment rules are established and trotted out as the Truth about how girls are vis-à-vis how boys are, the universe seems to forget itself and offer up unwanted examples as exceptions. Consistent, constant exceptions, as it turns out.
Another girl turns up, appropriately androgynous looking, with a scratchy voice that could belong to a pubescent male. “This is a girl?” the soldier-in-charge asks, to which she replies, “What would you like me to be?” with just the right amount of insouciance. In one hilarious exchange, another soldier who had to accompany this new girl to the holding pen tells her, “Look jerk, you don’t scare me like you do the other farm boys here,” in reference to the soldier-in-charge, who whines loudly and regularly about the wonderful and peaceful farm life he gave up in order to do this job and guard errant girls who waste his time and say ridiculous things. Despite his very proper adherence to the rules and his duties, former farmboy -soldier is continuously exasperated by the minor crises that crop up, such as when one of the girls needs to use the loo. She wants to use the men’s washroom before half-time, but farmer-soldier can’t conceive of anything as crazy as that. “Men and women are different!” he yells, to which she replies, “I’ll piss all over myself.” After this heated exchange, the commentator-soldier is the unlucky sod burdened with the duty of accompanying this female to the men’s washroom. But there is elaborate artifice, a pageantry of absurdity of Shakesperean proportion even in this simple act. Commentator-soldier takes a poster of an Iranian football player, cuts-out the eyes, and tells the girl wear it as a mask so that “no one will know you’re a girl.” She does so, and off they go to the men’s washroom, this curious pair of poster-face human entity and male soldier.
Along the way to the washroom, the girl tells commentator-soldier that football to her is more important than food and that she even plays on a women’s team. He asks her if she would like to play in a stadium filled with men and she replies that they only ever let women in when they play. “What if a man came to your game dressed as a woman?” the soldier asks her, to which she replies, “Men would not dare to do such things.” The ludicrousness is only heightened in the washroom – the soldier allows her to pee only after all the men have vacated the area. The only problem is, men are constantly coming in and out of the area – it is, after all, a toilet. He holds them back from going in, and then tells the girl to cover her eyes – so as to not read what’s written on the walls – stuff that is “too dirty for a woman”. Panahi’s gift is the ability to show these men not as monsters but as men with the propensity to be assholes and or illogical and stupid because they’re unthinking. As in any society, it pays for some (i.e. the beneficiaries, the ruling class, the political/social/economic power wielders) to be unthinking, while the only way for the rest to survive is to do the thinking for everyone.
As such, Panahi’s women are always one step ahead of the men because they must be if they want to exercise the same rights or enjoy anything at all. Their entire day-do-day lives require subterfuge and the ability to get creative and play with rules. But the weight of manhood is also heavy. The soldiers are constantly reminding the girls of the “strange men” who are everywhere and anywhere; as farmboy-soldier tells androgynous girl, “Even if a man is your father, or brother, or husband, to other girls he is a stranger.” How must it feel to constantly know yourself as the source of supposedly unspeakable danger, yet at the same time be the source of protection meant to keep women safe from the very essence of yourself? It must result in a consistent feeling of madness, and work as a most devious socio-cultural device that keeps men split both within themselves and in their relations to women. Perhaps this is how one can become a rapist or abuser on the one hand and still be a devoutly-concerned and protective father/brother/husband on the other.
Because the film runs on a thread of bitter-tinged humour and hope, the ending is suitably vague yet triumphant. The movie was actually shot during the Iran – Bahrain World Cup qualifier in 2005, which certainly puts the viewer in the same role as the imprisoned females. We know there’s a real football match going on, but here we are caught up in this absurd charade of gender roles and performative utterances. There is this rather bare-bones interview with Jafar Panahi by Time magazine which I found of interest for this simple statement: “I regard myself as a social filmmaker, not a political filmmaker. But every social film, at its base, comes into contact with political issues. Because every social problem is clearly due to some political mistake.”
It’s a strain of thought that’s apparent in both Offside and The Circle, presenting people just as they are: people making the most of mistakes, and sometimes simply succumbing to them.
*Title of this post credited to Garbage, naturally.