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Film Review: Hit the Road

2 August 22 words: Yasmin Turner

Directed by Panah Panahi, son of jailed filmmaker Jafar Panahi, this debut feature release paints a tense but tender portrait of an Iranian family with a subtle political message…

Director: Panah Panohi
Starring: Pantea Panahiha, Hasan Majuni, Rayan Sarlak
Running time: 93 minutes

Triumph and tragedy grip this remarkable debut film about a family road trip into the mountains on the way to the Turkish-Iranian border. It comes from 38-year-old filmmaker Panah Panahi, son of the Iranian director and pro-democracy activist Jafar Panahi, who received a sentence of six years’ imprisonment just last month for criticising the Iranian government. Before this, in 2010, he was under a twenty-year ban from filmmaking for supposed propaganda. However, since 2010 Jafar has released four films including This Is Not a Film, which he posted to Cannes in a USB stick hidden in a birthday cake. 

Hit the Road takes the form of a road movie, which is part of Iranian cinema’s distinct genre of films shot entirely in a car, semi-covertly to avoid Iranian state snooping. This means that no attention is attracted to cast and camera crew during filming. Other examples are Jafar Panahi’s Taxi Tehran and Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry.

While this film is undoubtedly tense, it is also loaded with comic energy, as the family make a hot, uncomfortable trip in a borrowed car through the remote and mountainous north-western Iran to the Turkish border. The elder son (Amin Similar) is quietly at the wheel, often overcome by intense, suppressed emotion. Sitting in the front passenger seat is his mum (Pantea Panahiha), who banters dryly with her husband (Hasan Majuni) - a greatly grumpy man with a broken leg in a plaster cast and an obsessive desire to smoke - in the back. Next to him is the star of the show, a quirky eight-year-old boy who not only insists on winding down the window, but also winding up everyone in the four-wheeled motor. And their poorly dog, Jessy, needs to be taken out to relieve calls of nature round every bend. 

With a family who could be shattered, a bold irrepressible defiance remains strong, and comedy finds a way to bubble in every scene

“We’re being followed,” observes mum early on, reminding us that there is a consistent danger lying just below the surface of what would otherwise be reminiscent of tragicomedy road film Little Miss Sunshine. The family are lying to the young boy about why they are on the road. His elder brother leaving the country temporarily to get married is the cover story, but it is obvious the boy does not believe it. Meanwhile, the mother panics as her younger son admits to bringing a mobile phone along and quickly destroys the SIM card. Is this anti-government activity?

As cinematographer Amin Jafari transports the landscape from arid sands to flourishing hills with a Kiarostami-esque sense of splendour, underlying is a streak of sadness that something is not being admitted. The family is heading to a location of grim farewell and loss that could involve more than just the elder son. The parents, a complicit couple, may perhaps be taken away from their younger boy. With a family who could be shattered, a bold irrepressible defiance remains strong, and comedy finds a way to bubble in every scene.

Hit the Road is playing now at Broadway cinema until Thursday 4 August

Did you know? Panah Panahi attended the University of Tehran and in 2009 made his first short film, The First Film, which was screened at the 2009 Montreal World Film Festival.

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