You might not have found yourself stranded in the Iranian countryside, but there is plenty you will find painfully relatable in Hit The Road.
The directorial debut of Panah Panahi initially feels like a classic road trip comedy. We open with a rare moment of peace, as two parents (Pantea Panahiha and Hasan Majuni) are napping in the middle of their journey, only to be rudely awoken by their young son (Rayan Sarlak) causing mischief – from there, the squabbling begins.
Over the course of their journey, driven by the eldest son (Amin Simiar), the family finds themselves mixed up in various exploits from chasing their runaway dog to running over a cyclist who still considers Lance Armstrong to be the world’s finest athlete.
The surreal vignettes may be told in a dreamlike way, but they’re all grounded in very real family dynamics.
But this is a deceptively laidback journey, with the reason for the road trip slowly revealed, bringing in a melancholic edge.
The eldest sibling, who like the other characters remains unnamed, is preparing to leave the country behind, something which Panahi could relate to after seeing friends and family leave Iran under similar circumstances.
“What was really important to me was to treat this as a universal topic”, he explained to Zavvi, “a family accompanying their child and leaving them to an unknown future.
“It was never about the specific politics forcing them to leave, but the journey a family goes on before they let their child go.
“This was rich and multi-layered enough to be an interesting story, but I wanted it to be a realistic depiction of fleeing the country too.
“I checked with people who were smuggled out in similar ways and stuck to the facts – I didn’t want to be driven away from the story’s journey more than it needed to be.”
The film has come under fire from Iranian censors: an initial draft of the screenplay wasn’t approved because of its political undertones and filming took place in the countryside largely to avoid the censorious gaze of the authorities. Even now, Hit The Road has yet to be screened in Iranian cinemas despite releasing in dozens of countries worldwide.
However, that early draft wasn’t more political. In fact, the gradual reveal of the reason for the family’s trip was a storytelling choice present from the earliest inception of the screenplay.
“I asked myself ‘what would be natural if a family is taking a trip in real life? Would they sit in the car discussing the reason, even though they’ve already had conversations about it?’ No, it’s all set – plus, they’ll want to protect the child, so they can never be bold about what’s going on, they have to avoid the subject and not mention it in explicit terms.
“I always want to give the viewer room to participate in the story I’m building, to bring their own meaning to it, like the cinema I love the most.”
Despite the fact Panahi has never been in a similar situation himself, Hit The Road is still a personal work, drawing from his memories of being on the road with his family.
“I think no matter what you write, it always comes from your past or at least from people around you who share their paths with you. And so, it’s not based on one specific trip or moment with my family.
“I just wanted it to be as organic as possible and part of that was going through my own memories. I thought it was going to be too specific at times – I had no idea foreign audiences would ever relate to the way they joke and talk together, but it made sense to me.”
The cast have a lived-in dynamic from minute one, the kind of on-screen repertoire that you just can’t manufacture. It feels like it would be a nightmare to cast, but Panahi was surprised to discover that finding the right actors was easy.
The roles of the parents were written with people in mind, so the challenge was finding the perfect child actor to star alongside them.
“Throughout writing I knew I was going to have difficulty finding someone to play the little brother. But then, unbelievably, the third kid I saw was the right one. I just immediately knew he had the right energy, to the point that I didn’t even need to audition him.”
Panahi’s father, Jafar, is one of Iran’s most internationally well known filmmakers – despite the Iranian government sentencing him to a 20-year ban on filmmaking in 2010, a response to his social realist works they classified as anti-government propaganda. Months after this ruling, a USB stick containing the director’s ironically titled This Is Not A Film was smuggled out of the country to the Cannes Film Festival hidden inside a cake.
Panahi has collaborated with his father on several productions since then, but he stresses that Hit The Road is the “polar opposite” to Jafar’s work. Whereas his father makes overtly political films, Panahi favours a more dreamlike approach to storytelling.
“There are many reasons why we’re opposites. My father struggled in his own life: he had an impoverished childhood and became a filmmaker to tell stories about those on the streets.
“But his success has meant I’ve been brought up in a well-off family, and as I can only tell stories I can relate to, the cinema I make is very different. But I learnt so much from working with him – from collaborating with a crew to staying calm on set when it’s a tough day. Even in the middle of shooting, I would reach out to him for advice which would always be helpful.”
One scene particularly highlights this difference in taste, where the elder brother speaks about his favourite film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, which Panahi pays homage to in a visual segment elsewhere in the movie. As the director explains, this was the film that made him fall in love with cinema.
“The first time I saw that film, it was a zen-like experience, it was the only thing that could soothe me. I had such a strong relationship with it that for a while I couldn’t go to sleep without having it on in the background.
“It completely changed my relationship not just with film but the world around me, waking me up to the larger scale of life beyond the galaxy and how we’re just nothing but bubbles that come and go. And this is purely on an existential level, cinematically there’s nothing else to say: it’s all of this and so much more.”
Hit The Road may not take us to the cosmos in quite the same sense, but it does offer something equally profound, in a way that will likely sneak up on you.