You don’t have to be a football fan (although it would help, especially now with Europe going into World Cup overkill) to enjoy Jafar Panahi’s Offside, a docu-comedy about women’s rights in Iran. Panahi, whose previous efforts include The Circle (2000) and The White Baloon (1996), uses football as an entry point to the often absurd situation faced by his female counterparts, which by the time of shooting were not allowed into football stadiums (the ban was recently overturned, perhaps partly thanks to the film).

Shot on video in a documentary, improvisational style, Offside shows the failed attempt by a young woman to gain access to the 2005 World Cup classification match between Iran and Bahrain at the Azadi Stadium in Tehran. The film starts with the girl on the bus being discouraged by fellow male footballs fans who warn her that her male drag get-up is not as convincing as the disguises put on by ‘professional’ gate crashers (cue to a passing bus from which convincingly masculine girls stick out of the window, animatedly waving the Iranian flag). That only serves to make the girl even more jittery and she asks to be left alone.

This initial sequence creates a premonition of a tense story that doesn’t really materialise. It ranks of something bad or even tragic, an anticipation of what’s going to happen to her, perhaps a feeling that stems from the fact that the film drops the viewer in a strange city on a bus full of screaming football fans. Offside turns out to much more light-hearted than this first impression suggests, but before the tension subsides (which it does when you least expect it to), we have to follow the girl through the most uncertain moment, the one in which she tries to get into the stadium. Pahani uses this sequence to make a simple and direct illustration of women’s social standing, not only in Iran, but everywhere in the world. The ticket seller charges her more money than he does men and he forces her to buy an unwanted poster as a condition to sell her the ticket. This crude example of financial exploitation reveals in one fell swoop that heterosexual, patriarchal society is happy to not only repress women but to also profit from the consequences of this repression.

It doesn’t come as a surprise the fact that the the protagonist gets outed by security guards, but what ensues is unpredictable and slightly surreal. Panahi chose a comedic, populist fare to develop the main section of the film, showing how when rules have no anchorage in reason you can only laugh at them. Everyone becomes a victim: the soldiers who have to keep an eye on the detained girls and who worry about the personal and economic consequences of extra time on duty and, of course, the women who have to endure the humiliation of exclusion. But all this is counterbalanced by playfulness and a pastoral humour that serves as a bridge between the men and the women in the film. Thankfully a sense of humour is not forbidden to women and they surely need plenty of that to survive such ordeals in their lives.

Offside is out in the UK on 09/06/2006.