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“For Us Iranians, the Car Has Become a Second Home”: Panah Panahi on His Debut Feature, Hit the Road

A young Iranian boy in a multicolored sweater with arms outstretched as he juts out of the roof of an automobileHit the Road

Hit the Road, the debut feature from writer/director Panah Panahi, is a 93-minute long goodbye of aptly sweet sorrow. Panah, 38, is the son of Jafar Panahi, one of the undisputed titans of Iranian art-house cinema. Having served as an assistant on his father’s films and edited his most recent feature (3 Faces), Panah emerges with Hit the Road as a filmmaker with a slyly unclassifiable take on the family road movie.

Panah has called Hit the Road in many ways “the opposite of Jafar’s cinema,” but the film shares at least one key quality with his father’s work: It’s one of the rare U.S.-distributed Iranian films that could be called “light” or “charming.” Jafar’s feature debut was also a family comedy that co-starred a precocious child (The White Balloon). Jafar’s cinema has long had an overt political streak; his films inflamed the Islamic Republic enough to ban him in 2010 from making films. Despite the authoritarian tactics used against him, the elder Panahi has made some of the only downright crowd-pleasing Iranian films released in the U.S. this century (see: Offside, Taxi).

Hit the Road, though very much the work of a new voice, shows a similar affection for small-scale whimsy. The film unfolds in the Iranian countryside as a family of four drives north toward the nation’s border with Turkey. Hit the Road conceals the exact reason for this trip for much of its runtime, though most astute viewers can likely guess why an undercurrent of sorrow hangs in the car. Where many filmmakers would make this trip tantamount to a death march, Panah animates it with delicious needle-drops, playful banter, and one very left-field homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey. The film, as such, feels less like an issue drama designed to educate foreign viewers than a well-observed portrait of a family in quiet crisis.

Hit the Road’s first-class festival run included a 2021 premiere at Cannes and appearances at more than 30 festivals worldwide. I spoke with Panah ahead of the film’s U.S. premiere at the New York Film Festival last October. Speaking on Zoom with an interpreter, Panah revealed how he tricked Iranian censors into greenlighting the film and his own feelings on the perennial question of leaving Iran. The film begins its theatrical journey today at New York’s Film Forum courtesy of Kino Lorber.

Filmmaker: I spoke with director Mohammad Rasoulof a few months ago for Filmmaker Magazine about why so many Iranian films take place in cars. Why do you think this is, and what drew you to a road movie as your first feature? 

Panahi: Speaking for myself, when I walk in the streets in Iran I have a feeling of lack of security and of being under surveillance. So one seeks refuge inside the car. This has somehow entered into our culture. For us Iranians, the car has become a second home. There is less surveillance, one can listen to the music one likes, if one’s scarf falls down there’s no one there to admonish you. It has become a part of our culture. Perhaps subconsciously, many Iranian directors use interior car locations. This has happened in the Iranian cinema because of cultural, social, and political reasons. 

Filmmaker: Rasoulof also told me his film, There Is No Evil, was shot largely in the countryside because it’s easier there to film away from the authorities. Did you have this idea in mind when you began writing the film – to write something set outside of Tehran because it’s easier to film there?

Panahi: This must have taken place in my mind as well. I do not have the presence of mind to remember, but it must have 100% been something that I considered. In Iran, we don’t have many locations for filming. If we were to shoot inside a house, for example, the women would have to wear the Islamic hijab. There is a lack of logic there, and a lot of Iranian filmmakers are not comfortable with it. There are also certain filmmakers who are comfortable with [the restrictions]. People like me, Mr. Rasoulof, or Kiarostami are not, and maybe it’s for this reason we’re drawn to the countryside.

Filmmaker: Hit the Road is, in part, about a man trying to get smuggled out of the country. How were you able to get this script approved by the censors to receive the permits to shoot in Iran? 

Panahi: Our first version of the script was not approved, so we changed the ending and sent it again. This time it was approved, but not to be shown in movie theaters – only in video formats. The approved ending was totally out of context and really nonsensical. They were going to that village by the border to sell a piece of land they had there, but after spending some time in the village they changed their minds and decided to stay and start a business on the land and become entrepreneurs [laughter].

Filmmaker: You’ve said in interviews that you have seen acquaintances smuggled across the border into Turkey. Can you tell me what that experience was like? 

Panahi: Two or three of my friends have left the country through Turkey. Later, they described in detail their departure from the moment they left Tehran to the freeways they took to the cities they visited and the manner in which the smugglers behaved, how they would have to use the skin of sheep. So in the film I tried to use the geographic logic as it was described to me. I would visit certain regions, I would talk to people, and I would get more detail from them as well. 

Filmmaker: Despite this being a story about a young man trying to escape Iran, the film is rather charming and joyful. It’s not an issue drama. Why was it important to you to tell this story with such a light touch?

Panahi: This might have to do with my outlook toward cinema and the type of person I am. In cinema and drama, there’s always a back and forth. When you have a paradox, you can point to something and then point to its opposite. Then your knowledge and understanding becomes more complete. This might have to do with my own character. If something serious happens to me, I try to make a joke about it. This could be a defense mechanism on my part. This might also have to do with my outlook on paradoxes; if there is something that causes unhappiness I should put something next to it that brings joy. 

Filmmaker: The film includes a number of scenes where the family dances and sings along to pre-revolutionary Iranian pop songs by Delkash and Shahram Shabpareh. What drew you to pre-revolutionary music for this story? 

Panahi: When it comes time to say goodbye, one is overcome with a sense of nostalgia. All Iranians have this common memory of going on trips as children and listening to these songs. Also, one has to look at the fate of these singers and what happened to them after the revolution. It’s the same fate that awaits the young man in the film. 

Filmmaker: This use of music and the dancing are details the censors would not love either. Do you think Hit the Road has any chance of playing in theaters in Iran?

Panahi: Honestly, I can only hope that their view toward this kind of music will change and that the film will have a chance for exhibition. One can only be hopeful. 

Filmmaker: Can you tell me a bit about the production? How long did you shoot, and did you shoot before the Covid-19 pandemic? 

Panahi: We were originally going to shoot in the middle of spring, because then we could get the best colors at the locations. Covid hit at the end of winter and filming was stopped. Three times after that it also came to a stop because of Covid. We ended up shooting at the beginning of fall. Unfortunately, we lost a lot of the natural features we were looking for, but there was no other way. 

Filmmaker: In the film, Fareed says that 2001 is the greatest film ever made. Given that there is a visual homage to 2001 in Hit the Road, I’m wondering if you agree. 

Panahi: When I was writing the scene in which the son and the father are going up in the sky, upon reading it later I realized that I had been subconsciously influenced by 2001: A Space Odyssey. Once I became aware of that, then I added the scene where there’s a conversation between Fareed and his mother and a reference is made to 2001. And yes, it is one of my favorite films. It is a film that has changed my outlook on life. It has made me pursue things that I otherwise would not have pursued. It has caused me to get to know myself better. In many ways, the statements made by Fareed are my statements. 

Filmmaker: I know this is a sensitive subject but have you, like Fareed, ever considered leaving Iran? 

Panahi: One hundred percent. People like me, people who belong to my social group, this has been a personal preoccupation. People want a better life. They’ve fought to create a better Iran, but they’ve been repressed and now they’re dealing with desperation and a lack of hope. They’ve reached a point where they think it’s better to leave the country. This has happened to most of us. Most of the people around me have this feeling of desperation where they think, “I can no longer do this.” There’s this feeling that there’s no hope among the friends that I have, myself included. 

Filmmaker: I wanted to talk about the long take between the sets of trees, when Fareed gets on the motorcycle. It’s a beautiful image, but it’s also a highly unusual way to have a character exit a film. What inspired you to shoot this tearful moment at such a huge distance?

Panahi: After I saw the three bent trees and the one stationary tree, the entire mise-en-scene came to me. In order to prevent an overly sentimental feeling, making the audience sad, to avoid adding an extra dramatic element to the picture, it was my preference to keep some distance. It went hand-in-hand with the logic of the son’s departure. That informed my decision to put the camera farther away, so all three trees and the actors could be seen. In this scene, we see the family as part of nature. Previously we’d seen the family as either background or foreground, but in this scene they become part of nature.

Filmmaker: Hit the Road is about to make its North American premiere at the New York Film Festival. I was curious why you were able to attend Cannes but not this festival?

Panahi: I was very excited when the movie got into the New York festival. It’s my first film, and for it to appear at an international level. I did everything I could; I got an appointment with the US embassy. The earliest they could give me was seven to eight months. We had some correspondence in order to expedite it, none of which worked. This would have been a unique experience, especially for a first film, but the US embassy did not cooperate in any way. 

Filmmaker: It’s a shame you aren’t able to make it; both screenings are sold out.

Panahi: I’m the saddest person in the world over this situation [laughs].

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