My boss and editor at Film Monthly, Iran’s leading cinema magazine, is a renowned football fan (that is, soccer). Film Monthly has taken every opportunity to gather film critics to write about football, and even a couple of years ago, while interviewing Charles Tesson of Cahiers du cinéma in Film Monthly’s office in down-town Tehran, they discussed a joint issue on the subject. For my part, I’m not a football fan at all.  It bores me to death. For me, 90 minutes is the length of a film, and I’m not going to waste it by watching a ball rolling in a 100 x 70 metre square. I prefer my own two dimensional screen and, for sure, I don’t want it to be filled with only a ball, grass, and a bunch of guys running around.

But this time when my boss invited me to watch the final of the World Cup with him and a couple of friends, I said OK.  Why?  Strangely enough, the final was being screened in a movie theatre in northern Tehran, and I wanted to observe people and their reactions. Simply put, one cannot understand the audience or read their feelings and intentions in a typical film screening. I thought a football game on the big screen might show the audience’s bare face.  My guess was quite right. Watching the final of the World Cup was a great way to see how a theatre and the viewer change their character in relation to what is being screened.

Screening the final of the World Cup in a cinema was a clever way of bringing people back to theatres that reportedly have had serious problems selling tickets. In the newspaper I ‘d read a cinema owner quoted as saying that during the World Cup ticket sales had decreased to half of what they were, and so screening the World Cup was a reasonable way to bring the audience back to movie theaters, even if it’s not for a movie.

An hour before the match, out we jumped into the 104 degree hot, mad night of Tehran. We head to a newly built modern cine-complex, like a big bow tie of glass and concrete, sleeping beside an east-west highway. The town was enjoying a calm day due to the unbearable weather and the unexpected holiday, officially declared by the governors just a day before. Though the stated reason for the holiday was the heat, in the plaza beneath the cinema complex, nobody cared about the temperature, even if the women were wearing their thick hijabs – well, not completely wearing them if one observes closely! There were colours everywhere. Clothes, flags, make-up – more colours than a colourless country can bear. A bunch of girls, with heavy make-up and tight Saturday-night suits, were whooping it up in front of the cinema, with their scarves falling from their shoulders.  They smoked cigarettes, puffing into the air and laughing at the boys who were staring at them. While I was standing with my back resting on the fence, a guy asks me about the black market. All the tickets were gone. Fans were carrying the flags of Spain and the Netherlands. In the backdrop of night, everywhere a sea of reds and yellows.

As we entered the theater, posters of Iranian films on the walls of the long and dark corridor looked like an exhibition of surrealist paintings.  Strange faces and figures, a girl posing like Sharon Stone, but in a manteau.  (The manteau is the robe which is a permitted alternative to wearing the chador, and it is becoming shorter every day – some people call this “clothing resistance”!).  A big, shameless celebration of bad taste and chaos.

The curtains go up and the game starts. The ball had hardly moved from the centre before hands began to clap. Everybody was rocking and roaring, standing on their seats, shaking and jumping. A girl turned out to be the lead vocal for a sizeable group of fans. A bunch of fifty people repeated her soprano slogans.  In the theater, there seemed to be no social or sexual boundaries, in this country of thousands of boundaries. No one cares who’s going to be the winner, or on whose side the ball was. The only thing that mattered was the shouting itself. The suspense was clear and present. It was unpredictable, and there was no preview or second screening. Watching a film, live and only for one time, with no peculiar director or actor and the narrative something unwritten, unpredictable and yet paradoxically utterly predictable because it follows the rules of the game. A miniature of contemporary cinema taken to the limit.

Another filmic coincidence: Hamid-Reza Sadr, a respected film critic and a colleague of mine, appears as a game analyst on TV. One of our companions was Sadr’s young daughter.  When her dad appears up there on screen, she suddenly squeals and then hushes herself, but with a victorious smile remaining on her face. Sadr was one of the few film critics in Iran who had written many pages on the cinema of the West and played a great role in introducing classical cinema to a new generation of cinephiles. Now, as a soccer analyst, he is enjoying a popularity that a film critic can only dream of. So it seems quite logical that these past few years he puts his energy into soccer, and not onto movies anymore. What critic could resist the regular live appearance on national TV during prime time? When the number of text messages sent live to the program reached seven million (one tenth of Iran’s population), it was indisputable why Sadr sees power in his new profession. Still, he talks about the match the way he analyses a social drama; maybe this is the reason for his great popularity as a TV soccer analyst.

Then came the last thirty minutes of the game, when everyone was up off their seats, gesticulating, shouting encouragement to their hero, and everybody had his or her own hero.  Unlike in the movies, here, some individual’s hero was another’s “bad guy.” The audience, or the subject, deliberately and actively invade the diegesis. Seemingly it was pure reality on the screen. A simultaneous activity, happening in South Africa, captured by twenty cameras or more from every possible angle and projected, without delay, in a cinema in Tehran. Nobody could find any better example of realty on the screen than this. Yet anything that happens up there loses its real meaning and turns into abstract cinematic motion. Everyone forgets about the social and political aspects of the images, while it still works unconsciously. When the ball goes to right, half of the theatre screams out and when it goes to the left, the other half. The impact was like a fiction film, doing its work by lowering the wakefulness of the audience.  The image finds its usual mechanical way of influencing the viewer, even if it’s definite reality and happening at the moment. The audience lets itself be carried away by the power of the image in a dark theater, and they start to act. This was a celebration of taking sides and participating in the pleasure of mass response to the image. Even a distanced spectator like myself found himself reacting with emotions far beyond his usual attitude, all with an easy mind that in the darkness of the movie theatre, any foolish or overemotional act will dissolve.

After the match was over and most of the viewers were satisfied with Spain as the winner, nobody was willing to leave the place. The projectionist, afraid of a riot, or in sympathy with the crowd, let the show roll. It was finally two in the morning when people flooded out of the theatre. To avoid the late night traffic, I lit out across the highway thinking about how sometimes the spectator is much more interesting than the object itself. The spectator, as our society prescribes it, should be immobile and silent. This screening was one of those rare chances to see disobedient spectators – in another word, real ones. It made me think of watching live concerts from the Montreux Jazz Festival or a play from Broadway projected on a cinema in my town. It made me think how cinematic experience could expand in new directions, appropriate for the age of YouTube and Facebook (even if both have been banned in Iran)!

About The Author

Ehsan Khoshbakht is a critic, film historian, jazz scholar and architect. He writes for various film and art journals in Iran, most notable among them, Film Monthly, Iran's most famous publication on cinema.

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