Hit the Road Panah Panahi (Iran; 2021;) Pantea Panahiha; Hasan Majuni; Reyan Sarlak; Amin Simiar
to escape perchance to dream?
Panah Panahi’s ‘Hit the Road’ stayed with me, even staining my dreams which the night after seeing the film all revolved about anxious travel to strange places. Like some other films, ‘Hit the Road’ after seeing it, needs a process of sifting through consciousness to arrive at some resolution about what it is.
Iranian filmmakers, perhaps reflecting something about the close proximity in which many Iranians live, have a particular relationship with the automobile as a setting for films. Certainly Kairostami and Jafar Panahi both make regular use of car interiors as locations, usually set against the outside chaos of street and road which butts up against the driver’s sensory motor system. The car is a pod where the individual is alone, isolated from the environment enveloping him and his vehicle; a space for unspoken unarticulated self engrossment where the individual is answerable to no one. A sort of in between place.
With ‘Hit the Road’ Panah Panahi, like some of his father’s movies, also uses the interiority of the car as a central feature of his scenario. After an opening shot that comprises a white screen (blank canvas), the film cuts to a long pan of the interior of a stationary car. The camera in turn picks up three of the occupants, then pulls focus to the exterior of the car to find the final member of the party, the driver, who has got out to have a cigarette. As we first ‘see’ these people, they come across as ‘presences’. And even as the film develops they retain this quality of being particular psychic entities in a situation rather than being ‘characters’. The reason for this is that Panahi’s scenario is economic in both direct action and the transmission of information. We pick up the characters in the car on his terms. There is development neither in clarifying action nor in back story that might enable the audience to understand them as agents or in clear motivational terms. Ture we see what is happening – an escape – but the parameters are ill defined. Rather it is a sort of emotional or resonancecharge that suffuses the scenario.
The opening long durational shot pans first to the older man, the pater familias. The first thing we see of him is his leg which is broken and encased in a huge heavy plaster. But it’s the man who is broken He says he fell. The weight of the man’s situation pulls him down, there is no spirit left within him: he is defeated, he is dead. He comes across as representing a generation of men whose very being has been crushed by the oppression of the regime’s autocracy that is both characterised and justified by the rigid implementation of Islam in Iran. After lingering on the child (to whom I will return) the camera pans onto the woman. She’s mother; she is the one who copes. The spirit of survival that keeps her alive animates her. Unable to offer any direct resistance to the forces that have forced her to undertake this journey to smuggle her son out of the country, she is buoyed by process of coping and working out how to get by, day by day. Life is working with whatever materials are hand to survive, including her own acts of resistance, a manic karaoke as she mimes out risqué and possibly forbidden songs on the car radio.
The husband and wife experience life in different psychic domains, but in the private space of the automobile their relationship to one another is very much as equals, and each inhabits something of the troubled state of mind of the other. But nothing can be said.
The third adult is the older son who is escaping, getting out of Iran with the assistance of his parents, using people smugglers to cross over one of Iran’s borders. Emptiness defines his presence. As if in preparation for his leaving he has emptied himself of all emotional ties, of all memory, of all attachments, emptied of everything that might cause pain emptied of everything that might draw him back. Empty so that he can make a new start. But this emptiness of being is disturbing, he emanates a presence that is a hollowness which makes him strange insubstantial and alienated. A presence trapped in a line of escape, but perhaps a man doomed to never actually escaping.
In Hollywood movies, an escape form the clutches of a dictatorial regime would be a major accomplisment, cause for celebration and fist pumping. But this is an Iranian movie, and escape is an admittance of deteat and an acceptance of loss. Of all the artists or creative people who have left Iran in order to get away from the oppression of the regime, film makers seem to have had most problems in orienting and encapsulating their concerns into the production of their films. Perhaps because films are so seemlessly welded into a social matrix, making films in exile poses difficulties.
It is making a films in a voided context. It’s true that Kairostami did continue to direct films that carried the weight of his concerns, but other filmmakers such as Asgar Fahadi, removed from the implicit richness of Iranian culture, have struggled. Asgar Fahadi’s one movie made outside Iran simply lacked the intensity and intention of the films he made on returning to Iran.
The final passenger of the four is the young son of the couple. Possibly 8-9 years old – maybe younger – he exists in opposition to every other presence in the car. Whereas to a greater or lesser extent the other three family members live out shadow existences, the young boy is larger than life: in yer face. He is loud and demands attention. And his presence is difficult to handle for the others in the car, because the dead find the living unbearable; the living pain the dead, reminding them what it is to possess the energy of life. And the energy emitted from the boy’s spirit and from his voice which is free to speak, has such a pitch of intensity that it bleeds out of the frame boundary of Panache’s film into the cinema dinning the audience with the the child’s claim on reality and life.
In as far as there is an allegorical slant to Panahi’s film, the child transmits a sort of hope. That the energy of this becoming generation may create pressure for change in the ossified socio-religious matrix. If the present generation young and old are shadow people, the boy is figured as a future ‘wild card’. Who knows? Mediated through his Iranian identity, his being is part engendered by being linked into of an Americanised world culture. Nothing is certain – but there is hope, and Pahahi signs off with the boy mimicking his mother’s resistance as he sings an old Iranian pop song.
Hope seems to be in low supply for Panah’s father Jafar. After continuing to make extraordinary low budget films whilst under house arrest in Tehran, Jafar was suddenly re-arrested a couple of weeks back, and has just been sentanced to a six year prison sentence. At this point there is no escape for Jafar; he can’t hit the road, even if he wanted to.