Panah Panahi: Hit the Road (Jaddeh Khaki) (2021) | featured image
Hit the Road (Jaddeh Khaki) (2021) | courtesy of BFI London Film Festival

BFI LFF: Family Drives Iranian Drama ‘Hit the Road’

In Hit the Road, which won Best Film at the BFI London Film Festival 2021, the silence between the family members carries the weight of their powerlessness.

Hit the Road (Jadde Khaki)
Panah Panahi
12 October 2021 (BFI LFF)

Iranian director Panah Panahi’s début feature Hit the Road (Jadde Khaki, 2021), which won Best Film at this year’s BFI London Film Festival, is an unassuming work whose strength lies in its vague shadows. The premise, driven by plot instead of narrative, remains simple. 

It’s a claustrophobic road movie, set predominantly inside a car with a family of four: a father (Hassan Madjooni), who is irritated by his broken leg, a mother (Pantea Panahiha), her older son (Amin Simiar), and his hyperactive younger brother (Rayan Sarlak). Their destination is unclear, and the boisterous antics of the child distract the adults from their unspoken anxiety.

Hit the Road genuinely expresses the rich, complicated and fractious nature of the family dynamic. The father mutters under his breath that his older son is good for nothing, and describes the younger one as a lunatic. The mother annoys their older son by trying to be his friend, mimicking some past play from when he was younger. Beneath the strain and distance, love binds the characters. The family dynamic is recognisable, each member is their own person as much as they are a partner, parent, child, or sibling. 

Panahi doesn’t feel the need to define these relationships. The ambiguity provokes the audience’s interest while the drama decides organically when and what information needs to be conveyed.

The vague explanation for the road trip underpins the theme of control and power. All we know is that the older son is on bail, and Panahi leads us to understand that he’s leaving the country. This absence of discussion to develop the plot details feeds into disempowerment through silencing people’s voices. We know our voice matters, but from Iran to the UK and the US, there’s a habit, to differing extremes, of how the police, authority, and institutions of power, try to turn a deaf ear to our voices. Society is littered with the grievances of those who are marginalised. 

Hit the Road’s themes and ideas reach far beyond Iran’s borders. It echoes the mechanisms of control and disempowerment that are present everywhere. In silence or in resistance, we become victims when upper levels of society choose to empower themselves at our expense.

Partway through the film, the older son says, “We create boundaries to avoid thinking about transgression. Whenever we do, our mind just blocks. Why? Because we’re sure we’re good people, and it’s true. We are good people, but the problem is the boundaries we’ve created. We stop thinking and we push it all into the unconscious, so we can’t analyse.” 

There are moments of self-awareness when a character has an out-of-body experience, and they begin talking about the film itself. The idea expressed describes the film. Hit the Road’s vagueness deprives the characters and the audience of the opportunity to examine its storyline. Much of the storytelling takes place in the realm of thoughts inside the minds of the characters. They are expressed in occasional outbursts, or in fleeting moments when they confide in one another. Within each character, there’s a struggle between heart and mind. They can try to pretend all will be okay, but the power of emotion weighs heavily on their minds.

We cannot be sure of what transgression the son has committed, and there’s no information provided to help with our speculation. Instead, a character we familiarise ourselves with biases our sympathy, positioning society as the antagonist. Familiarity as a sympathetic bias is common in storytelling, and here, we witness our contentment to identify the protagonist without scrutiny. We’re happy to accept what little information Panahi provides.

The child brings valuable energy to the drama, and his carefree innocence contrasts with the weight of concern the others must carry. It creates a space for the audience to remove themselves from the chaos of the adult world, and witness how complicated it is in comparison to the child’s playful perspective. 

Panahi’s film reflects our desire for permanence in an impermanent world. We look at relationships as fixed things, but as much as we grow together, we also grow apart. People can become chapters in our lives. While they don’t last, the memory of our encounter does. Growing apart, or being forced apart, defines love. We fear loss not only in the literal sense of death.

The news tells us about people driven from their homes, the world is becoming increasingly divided. Hit the Road is a simple and touching story, in a specific context, that echoes an experience too many people cannot speak about. 

RATING 7 / 10