The Iranian director Panah Panahi is the son of the embattled auteur filmmaker Jafar Panahi, who has been banned from filming by the Islamic theocracy since 2010. But for the younger filmmaker, it was the heartache of being separated from his only sibling – coupled with the collective disillusionment of his countrymen – that shaped his debut film.
The wonderfully bittersweet “Hit the Road” follows the ordeal of a family who help their older son secretly leave Iran. Amid the underlying sadness of impending separation and the country’s economic and social hardships, humor offers solace, often thanks to the adorably mischievous younger son, played by a child actor extraordinaire, Rayan Sarlak.
Speaking through an interpreter on a video call from his home in Tehran, Panahi, 38, opened up about his initial fears about following his celebrated father, the change in their communication since the project and the influence of master filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami. Here are experts edited from the conversation.
Like the young man in Hit the Road, have you considered leaving Iran?
This is the general situation of all Iranians and Iranian youth in particular. We’re stuck in utter despair. No matter how hard you try to stay positive and keep fighting, we feel completely trapped. The only possible option is that dream, sometimes reality, of escaping. Many of my friends have come to this conclusion. Of course I thought about it. The problem is that I can’t make films anywhere else because cinema is my passion and my only form of expression. I can only make films about people I know personally, people whose relationships I know.
As the son of Jafar Panahi, did you hesitate to become a filmmaker?
That was my biggest concern. It completely paralyzed me for years. I was afraid of being compared to my father. It took me a long time to overcome this blockage. But when you have struggles like this, you reach a point where you either back down or just decide to finally take the plunge. It was really thanks to my girlfriend that I could finally be more lighthearted about it, to see that the stakes weren’t so tragic. That’s how this movie ended up being made.
Did you ask your father for feedback while writing the screenplay?
For years I thought becoming a filmmaker was entering his world, and I wanted to resist mixing our filmmaking identities, so I would never share any film ideas with him. We don’t have the type of relationship where we talk about our views on things. We’re just talking about movies. But once the script was done and I showed it to people and asked for advice, I realized, ‘Why don’t I see my dad when all these young filmmakers ask him for advice and he’s always very generous? Why am I withdrawing from his help?” Thanks to this film, a whole new page in our relationship has opened up.
Sounds like he’s a bit like the dad on “Hit the Road” who’s hilarious but has trouble expressing affection.
I agree. He recognized our relationship and the way we eventually bonded.
For years, the Iranian government has persecuted your father. How has this situation affected your work?
When he was arrested, we became different people. Even if it was just the four of us at home, if we wanted to say something critical of the regime, we would start whispering because we thought they might hear us. This paranoia really became part of our lives. The screenwriting process was like a therapy session for me. For example, I spontaneously wrote the order in which they drive and suddenly their mother thinks they are being followed, without knowing why. But as I revised my script, I realized that it was because we live with this fear of being monitored.
As far as I know, your sister Solmaz Panahi had to leave Iran for this reason. How did your departure shape the making of Hit the Road?
It was the emotional inspiration for the film. My father decided to let my sister [who had acted in a film of his and was arrested at one point] left the country because they would use them to threaten him. We invited our friends to share the moment before she left. I remember very vividly that we all tried to put on happy faces and listen to music so we wouldn’t trip them up, but occasionally I saw someone go to a corner to cry. The very mixed feelings of that evening stayed with me and probably nourished the project.
Some reviews mention that you served as an assistant to the famous director Abbas Kiarostami. How influential was it on your artistic development?
I wasn’t an assistant on Kiarostami’s films. I was more of an assistant on my father’s films. But Kiarostami was a great character in my life because when I was a kid my dad was his assistant and they traveled a lot together scouting film locations. On all these trips, I was always the kid sitting in the back, listening to them and watching them. I learned a lot from Kiarostami because of this privileged relationship, but also because he is one of the most important artists in our country. Many of Kiarostami’s films are among my favorite films. He is a mentor to anyone interested in filmmaking in Iran.
Characters traveling by car are a motif in Kiarostami’s films, in your father’s work and in your debut. Why do you think this is so present in Iranian cinema?
There are some restrictions that are very specific to our cinema. For example, women are not allowed to be shown in our films with their heads uncovered. But at home the women don’t wear hats because they are with their families. As soon as you show a scene with a veiled woman at home, it’s artificial. The space between the interior scenes and the streets, where one is oppressed and watched, is the car, in our lives but also in our films. Sitting in your car gives you a relatively private space to listen to the music you want and not get arrested even if your scarf falls off. This space has become like a second home for all of us Iranians, and of course that is also reflected in our films.