The Off-screen Caught in Becoming

Curator's Note

Gender relations in the Iranian patriarchal society lie at the heart of Jafar Panahi’s cinema— from depicting the struggle of Iranian women excluded by Islamic law from entering soccer stadiums in Offside (Afsaid, 2006), to reading the script of an unmade film about a university freshwoman whose traditional family confines her to home in the hope of preventing her from attending art school in This Is Not a Film (In Film Nist, 2011), to narrating the story of resistance and rebellion of the same young woman in Three Faces (Seh Rokh, 2018). In this brief article, I will closely study a scene from Offside, which is the epitome of Panahi’s wielding of the affirmative power of the false to evoke certain ideas from traditional Iranian culture so as to form imaginary off-screen spaces trapped in a never-ending procession of becoming on-screen spaces.

Before attending to the study of Offside, we first need to review andaruni and biruni— two concepts from Iranian culture. Andaruni and biruni are deeply rooted in Iranian architecture and culture. Andaruni— literally meaning, “the inner” part— refers to private or domestic spaces of a building, while biruni— literally meaning, “the outer” part— refers to public or exterior spaces. Similar to almost every “benign” segregation, these concepts have significant implications for gender relations in Iranian culture, as the division of these spaces is traditionally gendered, with andaruni spaces reserved for women and biruni spaces for men. Andaruni spaces have historically been the domain of women, ones where they could maintain control over their lives and activities. In contrast, men typically occupied biruni spaces for their engagement in public activities and socialization. The endurance of these gendered spaces has reinforced the idea that women belong in the private sphere, while men occupy the public sphere.

Now let’s discuss Jafar Panahi’s Offside. Offside follows the story of a group of young women who try to sneak into a football stadium to watch a crucial World Cup qualifying match even though women are banned from attending sporting events in Iran. In attempting to enter the stadium, the women— mostly disguised as men— are stopped by the police and taken to a holding area just outside the walls of the stadium. They are all held in a makeshift pen and guarded by several male guards. The “girls” are passionate about football and desperate to see the match. They try various tactics to convince the guards to let them in. However, the guards are unyielding, and the girls are only able to “listen” to the match from outside the stadium, hearing the crowd’s cheers and trying to catch glimpses of the action through cracks in the stadium walls whenever possible.

In a scene, almost two-thirds into the film, the “Girl Soccer Player” character returns to the makeshift pen out of feeling sorry for one of the male guards who initially allowed her to use the bathroom. Upon her return, other girls ask her about her passing experience of watching the match from the stadium’s seating areas. In an attempt to explain her experience, the “Girl Soccer Player” draws a few lines on the floor of the holding area and asks her fellow detainees to stand for male soccer players on the field. She then enacts a part of the soccer match with the help of the other girls.

The holding area in this scene, metaphorically stands for andaruni— an enclosed part of traditional Iranian homes reserved for women. This is evident toward the end of the clip when they decide to invite the male guard in but quickly stop him from entering by keeping him beyond the “walls” of the holding area. What lies outside this limited space is biruni— an open space reserved for men. As if in andaruni, the young women restrained to the makeshift pen are on the receiving end of what is taking place outside the boundaries of andaruni. Thus, they cannot see what happens on the field— a space of biruni— only listen to it, outside of it, at its side, off-side, in andaruni. The imagined walls of the makeshift pen function by women’s imposed internal submissiveness; the young women restrict themselves to the imagined walls of the holding area, as historically, traditional women restricted themselves to andaruni because of expected norms of modesty.

But what about the off-screen? Besides the aforementioned apparent reference to the historical and cultural space off the screen, this film takes the notion of off-screen one step further. Some scholars have argued that andaruni can provide a sense of agency and autonomy for women. The andaruni space is not a static or passive space but a space that is actively used by women to assert their agency and resist the dominant patriarchal culture. Women have used andaruni spaces to challenge traditional gender roles and assert independence. One example of controlling the andaruni space and claiming their agency is evident in this scene, as demonstrated by the women preventing the male guard from entering the makeshift pen— a space that is created by the male guards but is managed by women. We also see a metaphorical example of this resistance in this scene. The young women turn andaruni into the social and communal space of biruni by imagining and reenacting the soccer game inside the holding area; they create a false space of biruni.

The false, for Deleuze, is a crucial component of the process of difference. It allows for the creation of new modes of thought and expression by disrupting established categories and challenging traditional conceptions. Deleuze argues that the false is not a mere negation of the truth, but rather a positive and productive force that opens up new possibilities for thought and expression. For him, the false is a force of creation that produces new assemblages, new forms of life, and new modes of thought. Falsehood, for Deleuze, is a way to break free from the constraints of the past and open up new possibilities for the future. In the process of becoming the false space of biruni, the makeshift pen becomes the soccer field— the very off-screen space that lies behind the concrete wall. To put it differently, through the imaginary space created by the imagination of his characters, Panahi creates an on-screen space that refers to the off-screen space behind the concrete wall. Panahi develops imaginary enclosed spaces that constantly refer to actual physical spaces. Doing so, he forms a space that is simultaneously present on the screen and absent from it— an off-screen space that paradoxically dwells on the screen, one trapped in a never-ending procession of becoming an on-screen space.

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