Hit the road”, sunshine and dark clouds from Iran

Hit the Road, the fea­ture debut from Panah Panahi, has been described as Iran’s answer to Lit­tle Miss Sun­shine. But this being mod­ern-day Iran, its sur­face whim­sy masks sin­is­ter under­cur­rents and gen­uine danger.

A young man is dri­ving his par­ents and his caf­feinat­ed 7 year old broth­er, some­where. And the film’s easy charm, par­tic­u­lar­ly in its first half, is gen­er­at­ed by the things the lat­ter says and does because he’s only sev­en and doesn’t know any better.

But as the film and their jour­ney progress, we realise that, con­trary to appear­ances, they’re trav­el­ling with a very spe­cif­ic des­ti­na­tion in mind; a seclud­ed and out of the way bor­der crossing. 

Panahi is, as some of you will have sur­mised, the son of Jafar Panahi, who direct­ed the infec­tious­ly charm­ing and gen­uine­ly mov­ing Off­side, from 2006, about a pair a teenage girls deter­mined to go a world cup qual­i­fy­ing match. In 2010, he was sen­tenced to 6 years in prison and banned from mak­ing films for 20 years.

But a year lat­er, in 2011, he defi­ant­ly “made” This is not a Film, which was smug­gled out and shown inter­na­tion­al­ly (reviewed by me ear­li­er here). And ever since which, he’s remained there under house arrest and under con­stant threat of being sent to prison. 

Remark­ably, as it’s con­sid­er­ably eas­i­er said than done, his son here strikes up exact­ly the same deft bal­ance of pro­duc­ing a fly-on-the-wall win­dow on to inti­mate, domes­tic ten­sions, togeth­er with the sub­tle, unspo­ken cri­tique of a regime that forces ordi­nary peo­ple to act in ways they would nev­er nor­mal­ly have dreamt of.

All the per­for­mances are out­stand­ing, and there’s just the right mea­sure of direc­to­r­i­al flour­ish­es to lift the film for­mal­ly, with­out allow­ing it to descend into wan­ton quirkiness. 

Hit the Road is yet anoth­er rea­son to cel­e­brate one of the most vibrant film mak­ing cul­tures in the world. And for lament­ing a regime that insists on for­ev­er pun­ish­ing its peo­ple for their defi­ant and stead­fast refusal to stay silent.

You can see the trail­er for Hit the Road here.

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Jafar Panahi’s “This Is Not A Film”, Yet Another Iranian Triumph, Not

This Is Not A FilmIn late 2010 the gift­ed Iran­ian film mak­er Jafar Panahi was sen­tenced to six years in jail and for­bid­den from mak­ing films for 20 years.

Films of his, such as The Cir­cle from 2000 and Off­side from 2006, had sug­gest­ed that here was yet anoth­er Iran­ian film mak­er who seemed to have suc­cess­ful­ly found a way to gen­tly cri­tique the land of his birth, espe­cial­ly its atti­tude to women, but to do so in such a way that the author­i­ties were begrudg­ing­ly pre­pared to put up with. Not any more, alas.

Under house arrest, and for­bid­den from in any way being seen to make films, he invit­ed a film mak­er friend of his around to record a day in his life. Light­heart­ed­ly at first, he begins to act out the film that he’d hoped to be mak­ing. It’s a sto­ry of a girl impris­oned in her own home, for­bid­den by her tra­di­tion­al par­ents from leav­ing to pur­sue her stud­ies at university.

But as he tries to tell the film, that lev­i­ty evap­o­rates, and the hope­less­ness of his sit­u­a­tion begins to dawn on him. You can’t tell a film, that’s not what a film is. And sud­den­ly, the title’s no longer fun­ny or mis­chie­vous, but qui­et­ly trag­ic. He might nev­er make a film ever again.

Some­thing quite remark­able hap­pened to Iran­ian cin­e­ma about 20 years ago. Its nat­ur­al mode had always been that of neo­re­al­ism. So when we see the boy impa­tient­ly ask­ing an elder for direc­tions in Kiarostami’s Where Is The Friend’s Home from 1987, the old man con­tin­ues prepar­ing his pipe before stir­ring him­self to reply.

His face seems to say, empires rise and empires fall, but noth­ing ever real­ly changes, so I might as well enjoy my smoke before even­tu­al­ly address­ing your ques­tion – which by the way, and unsur­pris­ing­ly, I’ll not be able to help you with.

But in 1990 Kiarosta­mi made a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent kind of film, with the bril­liant if unchar­ac­ter­is­tic Close Up. It fol­lows a man who imper­son­ates anoth­er major Iran­ian film mak­er, Mohsan Makhmal­baf. But as you watch what appears to be a doc­u­men­tary, you real­ize that a lot of what you’re see­ing must in fact have been re-enact­ed. And the film’s sub­ject, truth and lies, is mir­rored by the form it takes to tell its sto­ry, as it becomes increas­ing­ly dif­fi­cult to untan­gle fact from fiction.

The fol­low­ing year, in ’91, he made a doc­u­men­tary cum fea­ture film about the actors from Where Is The Friend’s Home called Life And Noth­ing More. And in ’94 he made Through The Olive Trees, which was a film about the actors in that film, and the ten­sion between how they treat­ed one anoth­er on and off set. In oth­er words, he made a film, about a film, about a film.

Then in ’96, Makhmal­baf, he of Close Up, made a remark­able film about a film mak­er mak­ing a film about an inci­dent in his youth, when he’d stabbed a police­man. But the film, provoca­tive­ly titled A Moment of Inno­cence, starred the actu­al police­man play­ing his old­er self, advis­ing the actor who was cast as his younger self!

Most remark­ably of all, Makhmal­baf’s 18 year old daugh­ter Sami­ra then made a stun­ning film called The Apple, in ’98, about which I’ll say noth­ing oth­er than I defy any­one to unpick which scenes were fic­tion­al­ized and which ones actu­al­ly happened.

So when we see the for­lorn Panahi point­ing his iPhone at his friend, as his friend films him in his apart­ment in This Is Not A Film, it’s a par­tic­u­lar­ly poignant image. Here are two Iran­ian film mak­ers engaged in a yet anoth­er fas­ci­nat­ing explo­ration of arti­fice and the film mak­ing process, and how it can impinge on the every day lives of ordi­nary peo­ple. It’s an artis­tic con­ver­sa­tion that we in the rest of the world have been hyp­no­tized by and have watched and lis­tened to in wonder.

What an amaz­ing coun­try, to have pro­duced so many serous film mak­ers pro­duc­ing such an extra­or­di­nary vari­ety of films. A Sep­a­ra­tion for instance, is a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent kind of film (reviewed here). And yet here is yet anoth­er major film mak­er qui­et­ly ques­tion­ing the coun­try he loves and lives in.

But what was once a source of domes­tic pride has been trans­formed into one of nation­al shame. The author­i­ties in Iran appear to be inca­pable of see­ing the wood from the trees. And instead of cel­e­brat­ing one of their many, bril­liant film mak­ers, they’re send­ing one of them to gaol. Shame on you.

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