Soccer — or what most of the world outside North America calls “football” — is popularly known as “the beautiful game.” But much of the masculinist discourse surrounding women’s soccer, especially in places where conservative religious doctrine and patriarchal social structures forbid women athletes from participating publicly in sporting events, can only be described as being “ugly.” In Sudan, a group of women who long to play for their national team are met with resistance by those who would prefer to maintain the gendered status quo. Sudanese-Egyptian filmmaker Marwa Zein turns her sympathetic gaze toward that group, giving them the opportunity to speak freely about the challenges of living in a society where women are harassed by state security officers and told to cover their heads and legs by the Islamic Jurisprudence Organization, an authority of Sharia Law that attempts to forestall their efforts to represent Sudan on the world stage. Although women played a vital role in helping to topple the al-Bashir regime (as participants in mass protests that led to the president’s ouster in 2019), they have not been granted equal opportunities under a military government that, in many ways, is just as authoritarian as the previous one. Khartoum Offside, which makes titular reference to a rule in soccer that prevents an offensive player from illegally crossing an invisible line, drops us onto the dirt pitches and front porches of courageous individuals who share a common goal, and who — despite financial setbacks and a lack facilities — work together to achieve it. Produced over a five-year period, this poignant yet surprisingly jovial and upbeat film, in which women soccer players chat matter-of-factly about receiving 40 lashes for consuming alcohol in public and then laugh about the difficulty of scoring a goal while wearing a veil, documents several dramatic changes sweeping through Sudanese society. Beginning with a scene that shows her grinning subjects in bumpers cars (crashing into one another with chaotic abandon) and culminating with black-and-white photographs of earlier pioneers in Sudanese women’s history (from basketball players to pop singers), Zein’s film reveals how contemporary attempts to contravene the “rules” of society are built upon historical precedents in the decades-long fight for women’s rights.
By David Scott Diffrient
Sudan | Denmark
(Arabic with English subtitles)