'Iranian is freer in the car than at home'

The 38-year-old Iranian filmmaker Panah Panahi has one thing in common with his famous father Jafar: their films are set in cars. Or at least: Hit the Road, Panah’s first feature, also takes place in a car. Just like seniors breakthrough film The Circle (2000), a series of portraits of women in a taxi in Tehran, and later Cab (2015) and 3 Faces (2018). And like so many Iranian films, for that matter. Iranian cinema has a thing for cars. Panah finds Panahi far too restrictive to speak of a road movie.

The conversation takes place with an interpreter present and it is the first time that I have interviewed an Iranian filmmaker by telephone, without seeing him. No looks of understanding, no body language, no non-verbal communication. That’s even more complicated than the first time I interviewed his father at the Venice Film Festival, just before his The Circle was awarded a Golden Lion. At the time, not only was there an official interpreter, but also someone from the embassy.

Panahi junior learned the trade from his father, as his assistant and editor. He is sure to be listened to. His father has been under a film ban for more than ten years, which does not stop him from continuing to make films. His entire family is under constant scrutiny.

The enigmatic narrative of Hit the Road, in which a father, mother, an older and a younger son are on their way to the Turkish border, is a treasure trove for in-depth interpretation. Are they on the run? And why? Everyone in the car has bigger or smaller secrets from each other, or things that are simply not talked about because thinking out loud might be too dangerous. Like his father, Panahi has found a virtuoso way of interweaving melancholy and mildness with humor. Like his film, our conversation between the lines is also about fathers and sons. What really makes him one of the new voices of Iranian cinema, however, is the way in which he also interweaves (American) pop culture and surrealist elements. Encounters with a cyclist, a mysterious motorcyclist, and a shepherd lead to alienating conversations in which any form of communication is also a way of negotiating. Is reality a transaction? Between people, but also between film and audience? And then there’s that awesome one 2001: A Space Odyssey-homage that gives the whole a mythical touch.

The car is a socio-political or geographical choice rather than an artistic or cinematic choice

Second house

Anyway. So the car. I’m reassured that at least Panahi understands my questions, because sometimes he doesn’t wait to answer until the interpreter has finished the translation. “What you have to understand as a non-Iranian film viewer is that the car is not a purely cinematic element for Iranian filmmakers and the public. The car is a second home, a private space, a place where you may be more free than at home, a refuge. You feel less watched. Even if your mother’s, or your sister’s, or your daughter’s headscarf is perhaps a little looser in the car than would be appropriate on the street, that’s allowed. The car is a socio-political or geographical choice rather than an artistic or cinematic choice. If you understand that, then you understand how the movies that take place in a car are a reflection of our real lives.”

The fact that the car is a sanctuary, and that thanks to the wide distribution of Iranian films in the Netherlands, that is no longer a secret for us, relates well to what is perhaps the main theme of Hit the Road: to trust. The family talks about everything except the purpose of their trip. Do they even know themselves? “Where are we?” asks the mother at the beginning. “We are dead,” replies her youngest son.

Perhaps they are on their way to come back to life. To at least learn to trust each other again. The child has secretly smuggled a mobile phone, just like his father. Mom and Dad are constantly arguing about what to tell him – the boy is quite vocal, funny and assertive, and sometimes seems to understand more of the world than the adults. Meanwhile, the eldest son, who it all seems to revolve around, sits sullenly behind the wheel. “As the journey progresses, they begin to trust each other more,” says Panahi. “Also because they are not very good at keeping secrets.”

Female side

The film reflects how he felt when he started writing. “I like the contrast between closedness and openness. Of the tension between the unspeakable and the unspoken. I identify with all four characters. People who know me well, friends and family say that I am most like the youngest son. But I can also identify with the despair of the eldest son, and with the bitterness of the father. I can imagine what I would have become if I hadn’t found a way to deal with the gloom, the lack of perspective I felt when I was younger.” The mother is perhaps the most important character for him: “That is my feminine side. All the emotions she goes through, all the feelings you can read on her face, are what I feel for the people around me.”

He also hopes to forge the same bond of trust that the main characters have to regain with the audience in the cinema. “The cinema is a similar refuge to the car. It is always said that the road is more important than the goal, but to me the impulse to get on the road, ‘hitting the road’, is perhaps even more important than that road. It is about the will to discover yourself and the world around you. I hope that those channels of communication with the cinema audience are also a two-way street. And there too, trust plays a role, secrets play a role, things that are not talked about play a role. We need to decode that and understand what is and is not said.”

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