The Iranian director Panah Panahi is the son of the embattled auteur Jafar Panahi, who since 2010 has been banned by the Islamic theocracy from making films. But for the younger filmmaker, it was the heartache of being away from his only sibling — along with the collective disillusionment of his compatriots — that informed his debut film.
The wondrously bittersweet “Hit the Road” tracks a family’s ordeal helping their elder son clandestinely leave Iran. Amid the underlying sorrow of the impending separation, as well as the country’s economic and social hardships, humor offers comfort, often thanks to the adorably impish younger son, played by an extraordinary child actor, Rayan Sarlak.
Speaking via an interpreter on a video call from his home in Tehran, Panahi, 38, discussed his initial apprehension about following his acclaimed father, the change in their communication since the project, and the influence of the master filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami. Here are 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 especially Iranian youth. We are stuck in complete despair. No matter how hard you try to be positive and go on 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 have considered it, of course. The problem is that since cinema is my passion and only way of expression, I cannot make films elsewhere. I can only make films about people that I know intimately, people whose relationships I know.
Being the son of Jafar Panahi, did you have any hesitation about becoming a filmmaker?
This was my greatest preoccupation. It completely paralyzed me for years. I was worried about being compared to my father. It took a long time for me to overcome this block. But when you have struggles like this, you reach a point when either you withdraw, or you just decide to finally take the plunge. It was really thanks to my girlfriend that I was finally able to be more lighthearted about it, to see that the stakes were not that tragic. That’s how this film was born, finally.
Did you ask your father for any feedback when writing the screenplay?
For years I thought that becoming a filmmaker would be entering his world, and I wanted to resist mixing our identities as filmmakers, so I would never even share any film ideas with him. We don’t have the kind of relationship in which we talk about our views on things. We only talk about films. But once the script was completed and I was showing it to people and asking for advice, I realized: “Why don’t I meet with my father, if all these young filmmakers are coming to him for advice and he’s always very generous? Why am I depriving myself of his help?” A whole new side of our relationship opened thanks to this film.
Sounds like he’s a bit like the father in “Hit the Road,” who is darkly funny but has trouble expressing affection.
Exactly. He recognized our relationship and the way we finally connected to each other.
For years, the Iranian government has persecuted your father. How has this situation impacted your work?
Once he was arrested, we became different people. Even if it was just the four of us at home, if we wanted to say something that was a bit critical about the regime, we would start whispering, thinking they might be listening to us. This paranoia really became part of our lives. The process of writing the script acted as a therapy session for me. For instance, 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 revising my script, I realized this 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 her departure shape the creation 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] leave the country because they would use her to threaten him. We invited our friends to share the moment before she left. I remember very vividly we were all trying to put on happy faces and listen to music so that we didn’t bring her down, but occasionally I would see somebody going in a corner to cry. The very mixed feelings of this evening stayed with me and probably nourished the project.
Some reviews note that you served as an assistant to the celebrated director Abbas Kiarostami. How influential was he in 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 figure in my life because when I was a kid, my father was his assistant, and they would travel a lot together scouting locations for films. During all these travels, I was always the kid sitting in the back listening to them, observing 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’s a mentor for anyone in Iran who’s interested in filmmaking.
Characters traveling by car is a trope 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 instance, women in our films cannot be shown with their heads uncovered. But at home, women don’t have their head covered because they are with their family. As soon as you show a scene at home with a woman covered, it’s artificial. The intermediate space between the indoor scenes and the streets where you 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 in which you can listen to the music you want to, in which even if your scarf falls off, they won’t arrest you. This space has become like a second home for all of us Iranians, and so this reflects quite naturally in our films, too.