Iranian cinema as a movement made massive strides toward global recognition in the 2010s as Asghar Farhadi (in spite of the director’s personal controversies) won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film not once but twice, for A Separation and The Salesman. Characteristic to the Iranian New Wave movement, both films proved startlingly innovative examples of allegorical storytelling with a specific focus on the rural lower class and a strong sense of moral ambiguity permeating throughout.
However, there’s another aspect to the Iranian New Wave that, as a result of its controversy, will never be allowed to get as much awards recognition: that of censorship. Iranian filmmaking is one mired by regulations from the government and difficulties when it comes to the filmmakers’ representation of Iran, being unable to show unveiled women, depict physical contact between men and women, or criticize Islamic principles. As expected, these severely constrict visual creatives in their attempts at social commentary, with filmmakers often using children in order to sidestep the regulations applied towards adults. However, through the creative overcoming of limitations, some of the best art can be born.
In 2021, Panah Panahi’s Hit the Road premiered, offering one of the most remarkable debut features that both strayed away from trademark traits of the Iranian New Wave while also embracing its legacy. The film follows a family on the run as they attempt to smuggle their eldest son from Iran, the specific reason or his offenses against the government never being directly addressed. It’s not until halfway through that their goal even becomes apparent, as the film wears the mask of a family road movie in which the dysfunctional family members laugh, tease, and drive each other crazy, only for us as audience members to discover that the reality of their situation is in fact much more sinister. The character dynamics already illustrate a setting edging towards disaster. The Dad (Hasan Ma’juni) has a broken leg, the Mom (Pantea Panahiha) fights to lift everyone’s spirits, the Little Brother (Rayan Sarlak in one of the most adorable child performances of all time) chaotically bounces around the car, Jessy the dog is dying (unbeknownst to the boy), while the Big Brother (Amin Simiar) simply drives, not just quietly but fearfully too.
The Director’s Father Jafar Panahi Is One of the Most Essential Voices of Iranian Cinema
One of the first signs of characterization we receive from the Big Brother occurs in a private chat with his mother, in which she tells him that he watches too many movies (a conversation that all of us Collider readers have no doubt had at some point in our lives). His favorite movie: 2001: A Space Odyssey, as he details to his mother the protagonist’s escape into a black hole, as if traversing into another universe. Outside his insistence on saving a bike rider who they had previously knocked over with their car, this is all that we directly know about the Big Brother before the mission of smuggling him out of Iran is revealed. This love for cinema and the potential odds we can assume it placed between him and his government heavily recalls the legacy of director Panah Panahi’s father, Jafar Panahi, a prominent filmmaker within the Iranian New Wave movement. So prominent in fact that the Iranian government placed him on house arrest, an experience he illegally documented in the documentary This Is Not a Film, smuggled outside the country on a flash drive hidden within a birthday cake for a last-minute submission into the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.
‘This Is Not a Film’ Details Panahi’s Frustrating Battle Against Censorship
This Is Not a Film, like a precursor to Bo Burnham’s Inside, deals with Panahi Sr.’s frustrations with life under house arrest and his attempts to both entertain himself, as well as digest the potential repercussions of his upcoming court case. Just as in Hit the Road, the specific reasons for the immediate problem facing him is never revealed, but the message seemingly clear: in a nation where the slightest misstep can lead to your political persecution, the specifics don’t really matter. This is a world in which artists are under threat for challenging their lack of free speech, denying the cathartic appeal that making art has in exorcising one’s inner demons. In This Is Not a Film, Panahi attempts to recreate the screenplay that his government disapproved of within the confines of his home only to come to the disappointing realization that if he could tell a film, is there really any point in making one at all? The process of documenting his experiences under house arrest then act not merely a way of raising awareness for his predicament (and hopefully shaving a few years off of his potential prison sentence thanks to international pressure) but as a form of self-therapy, expressing himself through art in order to avoid releasing the constant underlying tears.
In a World Full of Lies, One Often Has to Laugh to Hide the Tears
Hit the Road delivers a similar sentiment. The family throughout, though loving and an absolute delight to watch, is held together on the basis of a myriad of lies. Mom doubts that Dad’s leg is even broken; Little Brother can’t know that the dog is dying or why they’re heading towards the Turkish border; the family thinks they’re being followed, but they’re actually just being signaled for a leaking gas tank; the cyclist that the Big Brother rescues actually just used him to drive ahead and cheat his way in the race. Morality itself is at risk because nothing is as it seems. In order for the family to protect their first child, they have to deal with criminals who rip them off at every turn. Amidst this constant frustration, the family in Hit the Road often blasts music to mask their emotions, dancing and singing at the top of their lungs in order to fight their real tears back. After watching Hit the Road, one gets the sense that Panahi, through his own art, just as his father did in This Is Not a Film, may be doing the same.
Given than Panah Panahi, growing up with his father under house arrest, would have been indoctrinated into the war against government censorship from a young age, in focusing his debut on a family in crisis it becomes clear that he’s channeled his father’s legacy into what ultimately became more than just a work of art. When taking the filmmaker’s legacy into account, the film metamorphoses into a statement on art altogether; detailing both how suffocating it is when a government constricts that outlet and how even then, one must use whatever art is available to them to find the strength to carry on.