Youth are too preoccupied with things that are unimportant, mainly themselves, to see the big picture. Youth are too disruptive, navigating the world on their own terms instead of slipping smoothly into the adult world. This appears to be a common consensus among the older generation. Often the people expressing these sentiments forget what their own youth was like. Youth is the time to challenge the status quo and push back against the established law and order because what society has deemed normal has not yet become an integral part of their makeup.
The theme of rebellious youth is a common one in film. However, social defiance and push back against authority are largely attributed to young men on screen. Young women rarely get to be seen actively challenging their designation as lesser than men, even though, in reality, young women are a vocal and active voice in instigating social change. The cinema has always been very good at quashing these kinds of stories and these kinds of women because they disrupt the stereotype of women as passive objects, blurring the line between masculine and feminine.
The films of Jafar Panahi are all about the defiance of his subjects, especially the young women he features. Panahi has identified restriction as the unifying theme of all his films, specifically restrictions that are placed by people on others. Panahi’s films act as fuel to ignite social defiance both on and off screen. This is further aided by the fine line his films walk between fact and fiction. Watching a Panahi film, it is difficult to remember that they are scripted and not simply capturing life as it happens. The documentary aspects of his work make the defiant young women onscreen more than simply characters in a film as they reject the ‘traditional’ behaviour of women.
The young women of Offside are avid soccer fans, just as passionate as the men, but are denied access to the stadium to support their team. Not that it will stop them. Disguised as men, the young women attempt to sneak into the biggest match in Iran’s history against Bahrain – the one that will decide Iran’s entry to the 2006 World Cup. The film follows one girl to the game, and once there stays with the women who have been caught and detained, unable to watch the game. Their confinement cannot dampen their spirit or enthusiasm for the game being played just meters from them. As they wait to be picked up and taken to jail, the girls try to convince the guards to let them watch. They’re already in the stadium, the girls reason, they’ve already been exposed to the cursing and foul language the guards claim to be protecting them from. Eventually one of the guards relents enough to give them a play-by-play as he watches the game and the girls push against the sides of their enclosure hanging on his every word.
These young women have an energy and enthusiasm for the game that mirrors that of the guards, who spend a great deal of time complaining that they can’t watch the game properly because they have to guard the illegal women who always show up and need to be arrested. Their enthusiasm, combined with their youth, is what allows them to gain the sympathy of the guards. The girls are not breaking the rules to challenge the rules or break the law, they are simply following their passion in the only way they can within the restriction society has placed on them. This is ultimately what leads to their freedom at the end of the film as they join the crowds of Iranian fans celebrating their successful World Cup campaign. It is through their youthful dismissal of authority that they can be fearless in their pursuit of entertainment and national pride. These girls are not aggressive, they simply refuse to accept the restrictions placed on their basic right to join in national celebration and gleefully find ways around them.
The theme of young women defying the stereotype of passive object continues in Panahi’s Taxi. In Taxi, Panahi’s docudrama style is a major contributing factor in the power given to young women, in this case, his niece. After he picks her up from school, she effectively hijacks the film with her non-stop commentary. After scolding Panahi for being late, she makes it absolutely clear that she only waited for him because she wanted to see him. If she hadn’t, she would have left. She brushes aside the concerns Panahi expresses for her safety, and then proceeds to complain that he arrived to pick her up in a taxi – now her friends won’t believe her uncle is a film director. She explains to him why his films are undistributable and takes out her camera, proceeding to film Panahi as he is filming her with the camera located on the dashboard of the car.
There is no question that Panahi’s niece dominates the second half of the film. No more than ten or eleven-years-old, she is still in the youthful stage of talking about everything with authority, even as her words make it clear she doesn’t really understand anything yet. Through her fast-paced chatter, she asserts her status as an active thinking being, not a subject, leaving Panahi to passively observe. The girl’s youth gives her no fear, and that fearlessness allows her to state her absolute opinion confidently, even as the more she talks, the more it changes. She is such a large presence, that Panahi eventually relinquishes control of the image and the direction of the film to her. This replaces the static frame from the dashboard camera with the kinetic, hand held camera of the young girl as she films the world outside of the taxi. At this point, Taxi becomes her film, not Panahi’s. While he does eventually manage to reassert his presence, Panahi never manages to escape the pull of his niece’s vision.
By creating films that place defiant young women at their centre, Panahi is placing the fate of his work into the hands of people who are rarely allowed a voice. By focusing on youth, he infuses an optimism into women’s struggles to shape their own lives that is often missing from members of the older generation. These women know the roadblocks they face, but they have not yet been defeated by them. Instead, they take charge, creating their own definitions of what it means to be a woman in a country that places major restrictions on the activities they can partake in and the places they can go. They provide a blank slate, writing their own stories, guidelines be damned.