Women’s soccer establishes a cultural bridge between Tehran and Berlin in “Football Undercover,” a gripping, finely tooled docu by debutants Ayat Najafi and David Assmann. This chronicle of efforts to get Berliners to Tehran for a match follows more than a year’s work by the filmmakers. The German-funded production grew from a meeting of Iranian Najafi and German co-producer Marlene Assmann (sister of co-director David) at the 2005 Berlinale Talent campus, where both brought shorts about femme teams. Already playing German hardtops, this inspiring, audience-friendly pic, bursting with female power, could score a hat-trick of niche theatrical, broadcast and DVD deals offshore.
When film student Marlene, a defender for BSV Aldersimspor, a multicultural club with players of Turkish, German, Korean, Greek and Tunisian origin, learns that Iran’s national team trains regularly but never competes, she aims, with Najafi’s help, to arrange a match with her squad. However, their mission runs smack into Iran’s Kafkaesque bureaucracy and the thorny problem of gender roles in a strict Islamic society.
To the Iranian government, women’s soccer reps a battle for freedom in more ways than one. For starters, as viewers of Jafar Panahi’s “Offside” know, only men are allowed to attend matches. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad briefly lifted the ban on women, but backlash from conservatives caused him to reinstate it.
As the German players — some of them Muslims — learn the complicated rules regulating women’s play in Iran (headscarves as well as loose fitting long sleeved shirts and long pants required), they express support for the project, but also some doubts and fears. Meanwhile, the powers that be in the Islamic Republic are less than enthusiastic.
While cogently outlining the obstacles the project faced and the political repercussions, the pic also excels in depicting its subjects’ lives — which are not as different across cultures as one might think. For all the women, the sport reps a means of self-determination, and for some more than others, a way to achieve equality.
Second half of the tightly paced pic focuses on the Berliners’ experiences in Tehran, from the sights and sounds of traffic-filled streets to the excitement of the big game. Although authorities forbade it to be advertised, it drew more than 1,000 female fans.
For once, men aren’t allowed in the stadium. Najafi, BSV Aldersimspor club president Hueseyin Karaduman and male relatives of the players stand forlornly outside, prevented by morals police from even peeping through the fence at the wildly cheering crowd.
Meanwhile, inside, the chanting, singing, dancing women are lectured by loudspeaker to mind their behavior and hijab. Conscious of being filmed, some chant about their rights.
Aces in all respects, the pic benefits from the determined yet gentle onscreen presence of the filmmakers while Marlene’s pithy v.o. narration provides an economical structure.
Clean, sharp and often poetic HD camerawork leads a strong production package. Energetic editing keeps things dynamic, as do score and outstanding sound design.
The pic world-preemed at the Berlin Fest, where it nabbed Teddy awards for best documentary and audience favorite. Filmmakers had aimed to document a return match between the teams in Berlin, but it was cancelled at last moment by Iranian authorities who cited “technical difficulties.”