Six girls wearing baseball caps and baggy shirts mope around in a makeshift prison just outside the walls of Tehran's Azadi Stadium. From behind the flimsy cage, the girls can hear cheers erupt as Iran and Bahrain battle it out for a place in the World Cup. Under arrest for trying to sneak into the football match disguised as boys, the girls await their punishment but being so tantalizingly close to the game is torture enough. One of the captives debates with a reluctant guard about the logic of Iran's law banning women from stadiums. "There are lots of men in there," he argues. "They'll be cursing and swearing." Without missing a beat, she replies: "We promise not to listen."
In his newest movie Offside (released in Britain on June 9, the first day of the World Cup), Iranian director Jafar Panahi uses such back-and-forth to highlight the absurdity of a rule that doesn't allow women to enjoy the beautiful game. But the conversation could easily apply to Iran's film industry as well: the Islamic republic is the prison guard, defending its heavy-handed censorship as a way to protect its citizens, and filmmakers like Panahi are the upstart prisoners, arguing that citizens should be free to make up their own minds. "When I come across a problem in society that pains me, it's my responsibility to make a film to address the problem," says Panahi, 45. "I make films, first, for Iranians. This is their problem, so I want to show it to them." So far, he hasn't been able to. All of Panahi's films, including Offside, have been banned from public theaters in Iran.
Denied an audience at home, Offside's fate is that of many Iranian films when they dare to question the status quo: it has become a hit on the international festival circuit and in Western art-house cinemas. But a funny thing happened on the way to the foreign box office. Offside was granted a screening at this year's Fajr International Film Festival in Tehran, which is organized by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. Then, in advance of February's Berlin International Film Festival, at which Panahi's film picked up the Silver Bear, a group of participating Iranian directors was told by Ministry officials to speak freely to the foreign press. And last month, after women protested outside Tehran's stadium, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad lifted the ban on women attending games. Some of the protesters were carrying signs saying we don't want to be offside anymore, using the film that almost nobody has seen but everyone's heard about to further their cause.
Could this be the stirrings of an impending cultural renaissance? Probably not. Offside was relegated to "a guest slot" at Fajr. "It was not shown as an important film," says Panahi. "They didn't give any value to it." Even with the freedom to speak their minds, the directors at Berlin didn't say anything controversial. And two weeks ago, Iran's supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei vetoed Ahmadinejad's decree, reinstating the ban that keeps women away from football matches. Nevertheless, there are signs that making movies in Iran could be getting a little bit easier. "Because the former government, under President Mohammed Khatami, was moderate, it was always afraid of upsetting the conservatives," says Panahi. "Now that the conservatives are running the government, they have nobody to answer to. So they should be more willing to give us permission to make and show these sorts of films."
The glimmerings of openness have surprised other local filmmakers who expected to hit more walls under the new government. Even a mainstream filmmaker like Saman Moghadam had to fight to get his films onto Iranian screens during Khatami's rule. When Ahmadinejad took power in August, the director feared his latest political comedy, Maxx, would never see the inside of a movie theater. Instead, the film was given the go-ahead for domestic release. Iranians packed theaters to see the story of a traditional musician invited back to Iran from the U.S. for a tribute concert, and the gauche pop star who mistakenly shows up in his place. "Under Khatami we had a short period of blossoming in the arts," Moghadam says. "It was a golden era unprecedented in Iranian history. But the rest of the time, we faced many restrictions. It would seem natural that a conservative government would restrict our ability to work even more, but that seems not to have happened."