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Iranian Soccer Film Features in Berlin to Protest Filmmaker's Arrest

An award-winning film depicting the obstacles female soccer fans encounter in Iran features prominently at this week's Berlin International Film Festival. The film, Offside, which won the Silver Bear in Berlin 2005, is again being screened in competition in protest against the sentencing to six years in prison in Iran of its director, Jafar Panahi. Panahi was invited as a member of the Berlin festival jury, but was barred by authorities from leaving Iran. Offside's first screening at the festival is scheduled for Feb. 11, the day supporters of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini assumed power in Iran in 1979 and established the Islamic republic. Offside depicts the fictionalized arrest by police of six young women and girls who smuggled themselves dressed as men into Tehran's soccer stadium to watch Iran's national team play Bahrain. Dressing as men was the women's only chance of seeing the game because women are barred from stadiums in Iran. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad attempted a year after the release of Offside to lift the ban on women attending soccer matches, but was overruled by the country's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei. Iranian authorities last month tightened the restrictions by banning women from watching soccer matches in public cinemas. In Offside, the police keep the detained women behind barricades on the grounds of the stadium. They are unable to see the game, but hear the cheering male crowds. In an act of defiance, the women start imitating a football match. Their role model is Iranian star player Ali Karimi, who plays for German club Schalke 04. The police, uncertain what to do, watch the women from the other side of the barricade with one eye, their other eye on the match against Bahrain. The message as in other films directed by Panahi, a key figure in Iran's cinematic New Wave movement, is that women take action while men hesitate. To get Offside past Iranian censors, Panahi presented them with a script that differed from the one he intended to use for the the film. He then employed two crews, one to film the movie the censors expected, the other to secretly produce the film he wanted to make. The real Offside was banned in Iran, but the government-run Film Museum in Tehran displays the Silver Bear it won in Berlin. "The room where the museum exhibits my awards is bigger than my prison cell," Panahi said in court last November. Panahi was sentenced last year to six years in prison on charges of conspiring against the ruling system and was barred for 20 years from leaving the country, making films or talking to the media. Panahi was released from prison pending his appeal but the ban on travel or contact with the media was upheld.

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