Iranian Cinema’s New Hope: Panah Panahi, London Film Festival Award Winner 


By Ahmad Rafat


Iranian director Panah Panahi’s first feature film “Hit the Road” won the Best Film Award at the 65th BFI London Film Festival last month. Panahi was up against stiff competition for the trophy, including Oscarwinning directors Paolo Sorrentino of Italy and Hamoru Hosada of Japan.

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Panah Panahi. KL./

Rarely does a first feature by a young director qualify for the main competition at a major film festival, let alone win the top prize. This year’s jury was led by the celebrated Polish director Malgorzata Szumowska.

Panah Panahi happens also to be the son of the renowned Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi. He worked as an assistant director on his father’s film “Three Faces,” which won the award for Best Screenplay at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. His first film was a short, titled “First Film.”

At the London Film Festival closing ceremony, jury president Szumowska commented: “The Best Film award recognizes inspiring and distinctive filmmaking that captures the essence of cinema. The essence of life!”

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“At all times in cinema history, but perhaps during a pandemic especially, we are looking for ways to connect to life. Our choice is for a film that made us laugh and cry and feel alive,” she added.

Panahi’s “Hit the Road” premiered in the sidebar Director’s Fortnight section of this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and was also screened at the New York Film Festival and the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the Czech Republic.

Prominent film industry publications praised Panahi’s work.

“Crackling with energy and outbreaks of exuberant lip syncing, riotously funny at times and quietly devastating at others, the phenomenal feature debut from Panah Panahi looks set to be one of the major discoveries of this year’s Cannes,” wrote the UK-based Screen Daily, which is published by Screen International. “A road trip in a borrowed car: a father laid up with a leg in plaster, a mother laughing through tears, a young child rattling around the vehicle’s interior like an errant firework. And an adult son who says nothing, his eyes fixed on the road ahead. From these basic ingredients, Panahi crafts a vibrantly humane and utterly relatable portrait of a family at a crossroads.”

The Hollywood Reporter, another major film industry publication, described Panahi as a  “new voice” in cinema.

“Nothing is left to chance: Even the act of seizing a bratty kid’s phone will take on greater meaning later on, when we learn that the road trip is far more than a simple vacation, requiring the family to covertly arrive near a border in the north. Like the Iranian masters that preceded him, Panahi has a talent for leaving many things unsaid, allowing the viewer to draw their own conclusions about scenes that look natural but are filled with intent,” The Hollywood Reporter wrote.

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When Jafar Panahi was invited to be a jury member at the 2001 Venice Film Festival, he took his son Panah along. The previous year, Panahi’s film “The Circle” had won the Golden Lion at the festival, and he had become the first Iranian director ever to have won the main Venice trophy.

On a trip to Rome in 2004 to promote his movie “Crimson Gold,” and in a conversation with myself, Jafar Panahi mentioned his son’s passion for cinema. Together, we bought some 50 DVDs of Italian and world cinema to introduce young Panah to classic films.

Panah Panahi’s “Hit the Road” is a road movie. The entire story takes place in or around a car. Contrary to most Iranian films, which are slow-moving, Panahi’s narrative moves at a fast pace. For instance, several scenes show the driver changing gears, but the audience does not tire of the repetitive action. By the end of the film, the audience becomes intensely concerned about the plight of the family of four who are at the center of the story.

The audience does not know the names of the four characters in the film, and get to know them through their relationships with each other. The mother, played by Pantea Panahiha, is the guiding light of the family. Through her tears and laughs, she conveys to the audience her concerns about her children’s future.

The car’s driver is her eldest, played by Amin Similar, who hardly speaks throughout the film. His eyes and mind are fixed on the road and the car. Hassan Majuni plays the role of the father. Although one of his legs is in a cast, the father tries to defuse the tension in the car and lift everyone’s spirits by cracking jokes.

The film’s real star is six-year-old Rayan Sarlak, who plays the youngest member of the family, a hyperactive boy whose jokes and playfulness add excitement to “Hit the Road.” Dealing with the death of the boy’s dog Jesse at the start of the film is part of a broader challenge that the family faces in their efforts to smuggle their oldest son out of the country. It is unclear why he needs to leave the country with the help of human smugglers and through which border.

Besides its exceptional cinematography and thought-provoking dialogue, the nostalgic soundtrack includes many Iranian pop songs released before the 1979 Islamic Revolution. A different song accompanies each conversation and interaction between various characters in the film. The song selections show Panah Panahi’s love and understanding of music.

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