Iranian director Panah Panahi is the son of embattled author Jafar Panahi, banned since 2010 by the Islamic theocracy from making films. But for the young filmmaker, it was the heartbreak of being away from his only brother – as well as the collective disillusionment of his compatriots – that informed his debut film.
The wonderfully bittersweet”Take the roadtraces the ordeal of a family helping their eldest son to leave Iran illegally. Amid the underlying grief of the impending separation, as well as the country’s economic and social difficulties, the humor offers solace, often thanks to the adorably mischievous younger son, played by child actor extraordinaire, Rayan Sarlak.
Speaking via an interpreter on a video call from his home in Tehran, Panahi, 38, spoke of his initial fear of following his acclaimed father, the change in their communication since the project and the influence of master filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami. Here are the edited experts 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 in particular of Iranian youth. We are stuck in total despair. No matter how hard you try to be positive and keep fighting, we feel completely trapped. The only possible option is this dream, sometimes reality, of fleeing. Many of my friends have come to this conclusion. I thought about it, of course. The problem is that the cinema being my passion and my only means of expression, I cannot make films elsewhere. I can only make films about people I know intimately, people whose relationships I know.
Being the son of Jafar Panahi, did you hesitate to become a filmmaker?
It 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 difficulties like this, you reach a point where you either back down or just decide to take the leap. It’s really thanks to my girlfriend that I was finally able to be lighter, to see that what was at stake was not so tragic. This is how this film was born, finally.
Did you ask your father for comments when writing the screenplay?
For years, I thought becoming a filmmaker would be entering his world, and I wanted to resist mixing our filmmaker identities, so I would never even share film ideas with him. We don’t have the kind of relationship in which we talk about our views on things. We are only talking about movies. But once the script was done and I was showing it to people and asking for advice, I thought, “Why don’t I meet my dad, if all these young filmmakers come to him for advice and he’s still very generous ? Why do I deprive myself of his help? A whole new facet of our relationship opened up thanks to this film.
He looks a bit like the father of “Hit the Road”, who is darkly funny but has a hard time expressing his affection.
Exactly. He recognized our relationship and how we ultimately connected with each other.
For years, the Iranian government persecuted your father. How has this situation impacted your work?
Once he was arrested, we became different people. Even though there were only four of us at home, if we wanted to say something critical of the regime, we would start whispering, thinking maybe they are listening to us. This paranoia has really become a part of our lives. The scriptwriting process was a therapy session for me. For example, the sequence in which they are driving and suddenly the mother thinks they are being followed was something I had written spontaneously without knowing why. But when I was reviewing my script, I realized it was because we live with this fear of being under surveillance.
I understand that because of this, your sister, Solmaz Panahi, had to leave Iran. How did his departure shape the creation of “Hit the Road”?
It was the emotional inspiration of the film. My father decided to leave my sister [who had acted in a film of his and was arrested at one point] leave the country because they would use him to threaten him. We invited our friends to share the moment before he left. I remember very well that we all tried to make faces and listen to music so as not to drop it, but sometimes I saw someone go to a corner to cry. The very mixed feelings of this evening marked me and probably nourished the project.
Some critics note that you were the assistant of the famous director Abbas Kiarostami. What was his influence on your artistic development?
I was not an assistant on Kiarostami’s films. I was more of an assistant on my father’s films. But Kiarostami was a big figure in my life because when I was a kid, my dad was his assistant, and they traveled a lot together looking for movie locations. During all these trips, I was always the kid sitting in the back listening to them, watching them. I learned a lot from Kiarostami because of this privileged relationship, but also because he is one of the major artists of our country. Many of Kiarostami’s films are among my favorite films. He is a mentor for anyone in Iran who is interested in cinema.
Car-traveling characters are a trope in Kiarostami’s films, in your father’s work, and in your early days. In your opinion, why is it so present in Iranian cinema?
There are restrictions that are very specific to our cinema. For example, the women in our films cannot be shown with their heads uncovered. But at home, the women don’t have their heads covered because they are with their families. As soon as you show a scene at home with a woman covered, it’s contrived. The intermediate space between interior scenes and the streets where we are repressed and watched is the car, in our lives but also in our films. When you’re in your car, you have a relatively private space where you can listen to whatever music you want, where even if your scarf falls, they won’t stop you. This space has become like a second home for all of us Iranians, and so this is quite naturally reflected in our films as well.