Meta-media and claustrophobic control

Last month marked the first time in 40 years that women in Iran were allowed to watch live football in Tehran’s Azadi stadium. The match between Iran and Cambodia sold out in minutes, and over 3000 women bought tickets.

The victory has an intensely poignant backstory, however: the reversal of the ban was a response to pressure on Iran from human rights groups, after the death of a football fan in September 2019. Sahar Khodayari, a 29-year-old woman, set herself on fire outside a courtroom when she learned that she faced up to six months prison time for trying to enter the Azadi stadium in Tehran, allegedly dressed as a man.

In the context of this bittersweet milestone, there doesn’t seem to be a more relevant time for the release of Soheil Beiraghi’s second feature film, Permission (original title Aragh-e-Sard, released in some territories as Cold Sweat).

Based on real events, the film follows the story of futsal player Afrooz (played by Baran Kosari), whose skills as team captain have led the Iranian futsal team to the Asian Nations Cup final for the first time ever. As the team are preparing to board the plane to Malaysia for the final, Afrooz is told that she is not able to go, as her husband, a television presenter named Yaser (played by Amir Jadidi), has forbidden her to leave the country.

We learn that Afrooz and Yaser have lived separately for over a year, with Afrooz refusing to answer any calls from Yaser. What follows is a psychological power-play, where Yaser flexes his power to get revenge on Afrooz. For example, when Afrooz tries to force Yaser to divorce her, she is told that unless the husband is unable to provide for his wife or he is physically abusive, there are no legal grounds for divorce without the husband’s consent – consent which he refuses to give.

Afrooz desperately seeks support from several sources: a lawyer, the national futsal federation and international human rights groups. While all parties promise to help her, it quickly becomes clear that this is only to save face publicly, because privately they all argue that their hands are tied.

Throughout the film, Beiraghi keeps playing with the concept of who is looking at whom: who gets the power of watching and who is being observed

What is interesting about a film that so thoroughly investigates male power in society is that men and male influence is mostly kept to the background and the shadows. Most of the dialogue takes place between women and when men speak they are nearly always kept off-screen, often placed behind the standpoint of the camera. The first line spoken by a named male character happens almost half an hour into the film as we meet Yaser for the first time, presenting his programme Good Old Days. Even then, this is immediately mediated by showing that the shot presented to the audience is actually a recording of Yaser from the director’s booth, which is being watched by Afrooz.

Throughout the film, Beiraghi keeps playing with the concept of who is looking at who: who gets the power of watching and who is being observed. The gendered gaze is investigated at every turn, with the film showing both how being watched can be a way of having one’s voice heard as well as just a form of voyeurism. Nowhere is this clearer than when Afrooz appeals to a global audience for help by livestreaming a video of herself explaining her situation. She initially gets attention from all around the world, but as soon as the hype dies down she realises that practically nothing has changed, except her lawyer now has an interesting, attention-grabbing case to add to her file.

In contrast to the quick pace at which media shapes and changes its opinion on Afrooz in the film, the dialogue is often filmed in one long continuous take, with entire scenes sometimes consisting of a single shot. With a definite lack of establishing shots, we are often left closely watching only one or two characters as the plot develops, their presence almost too big for the frame. This induces an almost palpable claustrophobia for the viewer, but not so much that it feels like a gimmick.

The film ends with a statement that men refusing to let their wives leave the country is still a common occurrence in Iran. It is not known how many women are kept inside the country against their will.

The emphasis on the constant performance for a global audience in Permission is interesting, particularly in the context of Iranian art house film.

Would European audiences have continued to invest attention in these films if their main selling point didn’t fit with certain preconceptions about the Middle East?

For decades, Iranian filmmakers have been awing European art-house audiences through stories that appeal to a view of Iran as a ‘backwards’ country, with films like Offside (coincidentally about a group of girls trying to sneak into a football match), A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night , A Separation and Circumstance all being promoted in Europe as stories about resistance in the face of oppression.

However, all of these films have so much more going for them as well. They are sports films, melodramas, coming-of-age films, horrors. Sure, it is certainly possible to read them as commenting on gendered inequalities, but this is true of many films, anywhere.

Would European audiences have continued to invest attention in these films if their main selling point didn’t fit with certain preconceptions about the Middle East? If they had been sold as ‘merely’ women’s stories, rather than oppressed women’s stories? Do we only care about other women if we feel that our gaze is somehow saving them?

Permission is a breath of fresh air for Iranian cinema being released in Europe exactly because its subject matter aims a critical gaze at global media outlets. It presents Iranian women’s realities as complex and looks at gendered imbalances in both the individual sphere and on a societal level. Altogether it is a film that should not be missed.

Permission opens in UK cinemas on 22 November

Both images courtesy of Sophie Dulac Distribution.
Images description:
1. Baran Kosari as Afrooz approaches an airport check-in counter with the rest of her futsal team. They are all wearing bright red futsal uniforms and appear to be smiling in excitement.
2. Baran Kosari as Afrooz and Amir Jadidi as Yaser sit at opposite sides of a table. They are staring at each other with a challenging look.