Enigmatic Drama Opponent Explores displacement and belonging for Iranian Wrestler in Sweden

Opponent opens with one man, Iman (Payman Maadi) chasing down another and beating him into unconsciousness as police sirens blare and the camera hurries to keep up with the action. The reasons for the inciting incident are hazy: and even when the explanation for Iman’s escape from Iran to Sweden emerges it is still difficult to parse some of the actions involved. Then again, the uncertainty may be the point. Iman is not sure where the threats to his safety will ultimately come from. His life, his familial situation and his sexuality are far harder to define than the unfeeling and bureaucracy of the Swedish asylum system can allow.

Opponent’s writer/director Milad Alami himself came to Sweden as a child, and here he paints a complex picture of masculinity, displacement and belonging, spanning across two continents, languages and cultures. After escaping Iran, Iman and his wife, Maryam (Marall Nasiri), and their two daughters (Nicole Mehrbod and Diana Farzami) find themselves in a refugee camp on the snowy Swedish border. Their life is monotonous and uninspiring as they wait to hear back on their appeal for refugee status. They are refused even a sense of familiarity, forced to move between centres with regularity. The only sense of community they experience is from ad-hoc football matches and small celebrations with fellow migrants.

Discovering that his appeal might be more favourable were he to return to wrestling to compete for Sweden, Iman joins a local team and befriends fellow athlete Thomas (Björn Elgerd). However, this decision comes with its own complications. Maryam is concerned that Iman is returning to the arena that led to them fleeing Iran in the first place – the details of which are never made entirely clear – and the rigorous training regime is likely to take a toll on his body.

However, for Iman this is in many ways a welcome change: the dimly-lit shared bedroom in which the four family members spend a lot of time – although they are forced to change rooms constantly the camera’s tight focus on the characters gives each room a sense of uniformity – is contrasted by the frenetic energy of the bright gymnasium. His already strained relationship with his wife becomes more distant, leaving Maryam to question the best course of action for her and her daughters.


Through freezing temperatures and impersonal phone calls, Opponent illustrates the soul-sucking nature of Swedish asylum, which destroys both hope and dignity of those within the system. An accomplished pianist and music teacher in Tehran, Maryam is stifled without creative outlet in Sweden. Abbas (Ardalan Esmaili), a fellow Iranian refugee who acts as translator on behalf of Iman for the Swedish councillors, is taken advantage of and then refused asylum himself, leading to tragedy. It’s not hard to see why Iman finds a complicated sense of purpose in his rejuvenated career, in which his relationship with teammate Thomas is the first hint at the hidden reason he may have fled Iran.

Opponent paints a complex portrait of a wrestler, a father, and a refugee: a man in desperate need of asylum in more ways than one. It also highlights the stresses and strains such a system can place on family dynamics. Leaving many things unsaid, Alami invites the viewer to fill in the gaps in the social drama’s narrative in ways that will likely both intrigue and frustrate.

Opponent is out in Irish cinemas from the 12th of April.

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