Iranian director Panah Panahi on Hit the Road: ‘I don’t feel like a film-maker in my own country yet’
Jonathan Romney, Financial Times July 22 2022
DirectorPanah Panahi: ‘Even my actors haven’t seen the film yet’
His joyous debut has been feted internationally but can’t be shown in his homeland — and now his auteur father has been sentenced to prison.
A beautifully acted drama with steadily cumulative force, Hit the Road uses one family's journey to make trenchant observations about society as a whole. --Rotten Tomatoes
Different cultures have different angles on that perennial form, the road movie. In American cinema, taking to the blacktop is traditionally about recapturing a mythical frontier spirit; in France, it’s usually about getting as far from Paris as possible. In Iran, too, road movies are likely to be about escape — but this may mean simply escaping into the liberating privacy of a car, wherever it may be.
Hit the Road, the debut film by Panah Panahi, son of the celebrated Iranian auteur Jafar Panahi, is an odyssey that confounds any preconceptions about his nation’s cinema being austere and testing. Although it emerges from harsh social realities, it is a thrillingly joyous, playful work; it even features a simple but magical visual homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey, a favourite film of the 38-year-old director.
Hit the Road follows a middle-class family of four on a drive to northwestern Iran, where the older son is to make an illegal exit from the country. En route, the family — including an irrepressible show-off of a six-year-old boy — swap badinage, get on each other’s nerves, sing Farsi pop songs and occasionally make sorties into the stark but beautiful landscape outside (the film was shot near the borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan). Cars, Panahi tells me over the phone from Paris via an interpreter, have a particular place in Iranian culture.
“In Iranian families, the first thing people aspire to buy is a car, regardless of their financial situation. A car is a liberating private space, it makes you independent of the system. The rules are still applied, but it’s more difficult to survey them, so a woman can loosen up her headscarf, you can be together with your girlfriend or boyfriend. It’s not just a cinematic idea — it’s a choice to have a freer lifestyle.”
While Panahi chose the film’s English title for its echo of Ray Charles’s “Hit the Road Jack”, the original title, he says, “literally means a non-asphalted road. In Farsi it has a double meaning: the ‘unpaved road’ is the road you take when you’re helpless, when you can’t do anything else.”
The story was inspired partly by Panahi’s sister Solmaz leaving for Paris; she had previously been arrested after appearing in her father’s drama The Circle (2000), a grim depiction of problems facing women in Iran. Her departure was not like the one shown in Hit the Road, says Panahi. “She left the country legally via the airport, but I remember the night she left. We were all pretending to be happy but we all knew she was leaving under difficult circumstances, without a clear future ahead of her. I also had a very close friend who went through this experience, with the car, with his family, exactly the way it happens in my movie.”
The idea of departure, Panahi says, is a constant in contemporary Iran. “Among people my age and my friends and family, everybody’s thinking about leaving the country. Everybody’s entitled to enjoy a better life, and my generation don’t see that in the picture of our future.”
The future of young Iran is in a sense embodied in Hit the Roadby its extraordinary child star, six-year-oldRayan Sarlak, whose explosive, impudent energy brings a vivid streak of out-and-out comedy.
“I was very lucky with Rayan — he was the third kid I interviewed. I kept telling myself what a genius I had in front of me.” While the film was tightly scripted, young Rayan was a wild card bringing a touch of the unexpected: when he made an impromptu comment about a masked motorcyclist looking like Batman villain the Scarecrow, it immediately went into the script. “Or when he starts dancing, with his head out of the car,”Panahi says. “When the two of us practised that, we started laughing, talking, telling each other stories, then we started practising the dance. The whole scene was the result of both of us doing it together.”
The film’s in-car musical entertainment includes several Iranian pop songs from the pre-revolutionary era — yearning romantic ballads with a delirious rhythmic swing. “After the revolution [in 1979], we had so many restrictions on music and singing — that’s why on road trips people listen to pre-revolutionary music, songs performed by the artists who had to flee the country. In spite of the joyful music, the meaning of the words is quite sad. These songs are appreciated across the generations, maybe because of that paradox.”
Although Panahi previously worked on his father Jafar’s films, most recently as editor, he says his own film is entirely different. Panahi senior is especially known for stories (Crimson Gold, Offside) about Iran’s disadvantaged and oppressed, a concern arising out of his own working-class background, Panahi says. “I grew up in a very comfortable situation, my friends never had financial problems, we lived uptown — so I have different concerns, I talk about different things.”
For many years, Jafar, an outspoken social commentator, has contended with government hostility. In 2010, the authorities banned him from making films for 20 years, but he has nevertheless continued working, sometimes by ingenious methods: notably in his visual diary of house arrest, cheekily entitled This Is Not a Film. Now, three days before I speak to Panahi, news has come that Jafar has again been arrested, this time after enquiring about fellow film-makers Mohammad Rasoulof and Mostafa Al-Ahmad, themselves detained after protesting against heavy-handed policing.
Panahi only learnt about the arrest after arriving in Paris, and is trying to put a brave face on it. “I know how my father is, even in difficult situations. He was so bored sitting at home doing nothing. Now he’s somewhere he can find many ideas for his next movies.”
As for Panahi junior, while he received official permission to make his film, he has not been able to screen it in Iran. Feted worldwide since premiering in Cannes last year, Hit the Roadremains both unseen and largely unremarked upon at home. “Not only is the government not acknowledging its success, even the cinema websites don’t mention the movie. Even my actors haven’t seen it yet. I don’t feel like a film-maker in my own country yet.” Even so, rather than becoming a director in exile, Panahi is determined to carry on working in Iran. “My soul is attached to this country,” he says.
However, a few days after we speak, further news comes: it is announced that Jafar has been sentenced to six years in prison. Panahi had been talking confidently about moving ahead with his next film, but for now it looks as if his family will have their hands full fighting for justice.
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Panah Panahi, son and collaborator of embattled Iranian master Jafar Panahi, makes a striking feature debut with this charming, sharp-witted, and deeply moving comic drama. ‘Hit the Road’ takes the tradition of the Iranian road-trip movie and adds unexpected twists and turns. It follows a family of four – two middle-aged parents and their sons, one a taciturn adult, the other a ebullient six-year-old – as they drive across the Iranian countryside. Over the course of the trip, they bond over memories of the past, grapple with fears of the unknown, and fuss over their sick dog. Unspoken tensions arise and the film builds emotional momentum as it slowly reveals the furtive purpose for their journey. The result is a humanist drama that offers an authentic, raw, and deeply sincere observation of an Iranian family preparing to part with one of their own.