Iranian family road trip movie wins top prize at London film festival

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A tender and unexpectedly funny story about a family’s road trip through the twisting desert highways and misty green valleys of northwestern Iran has won the most prestigious prize at this year’s London film festival.

Hit the Road, the debut by Panah Panahi – son of esteemed Iranian film-maker Jafar Panahi – centres on a family of four making a run for the border, as the father (Hassan Madjooni) struggles with a broken leg, the mother (Pantea Panahiha) laughs when she’s holding back tears, the youngest (Rayan Sarlak) explodes into car karaoke, and the older son (Amin Simiar) remains mysteriously sullen. Nobody mentions where they’re going, but knowledge of their unspoken destination turns despair into affection and eccentric behaviour, all set to the soundtrack of 70s Iranian pop.

“The best film award recognises inspiring and distinctive film-making that captures the essence of cinema. The essence of life,” said Małgorzata Szumowska, the competition president whose own film screened in last year’s festival. “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.”

Related: London film festival 2021: Peter Bradshaw’s top 10 picks

Panahi has said he ran the finished script by his father, who’s banned from making films and leaving Iran after he was found guilty of “propaganda against the state”. “The more I think about it, the more I realise that we have always lived with this feeling that we are being watched,” he said. “This is how it’s been for my family, but I’m sure it’s the same for the families of a lot of artists and intellectuals.”

The Sutherland award for first feature film went to Belgian director Laura Wandel’s Playground, which is about seven-year-old Nora (Maya Vanderbeque) who tries to help her big brother Abel (Günter Duret) overcome his bullying. Their school, with its own customs, is presented as a microcosm of the wider world’s injustices.

Isabel Sandoval, first feature competition president, said Playground was something “everyone can identify with and connect with, and yet has a striking and singular voice, with a courageous commitment to its vision. It has a visceral ability to capture beautifully and clearly how we are shaped by our experiences, and through an insular setting shows us a microcosm for the human condition.”

This year’s BFI London Film Festival included a programme of 159 feature films – including 21 premieres – from around the world. They included Jeymes Samuel’s modern western The Harder They Fall, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut The Lost Daughter, and Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog.

It comes after Covid restrictions forced the festival into a hybrid model last year with a significant number of films screened digitally. But festival organisers said that while it had been difficult to plan, it had been an “incredible” year for the festival.

“Not only have we held our own in a pandemic, it really has felt like we have gone up a level, even from our very successful 2019 addition,” said festival director Tricia Tuttle. “If one measure of impact is the presence of major international stars, then the mega-watt power of opening night with a world premiere of The Harder They Fall with Jay-Z and Beyoncé in attendance kicked us off in great style.”

This year the festival also partnered with the Royal Festival Hall, which became a cultural hub for screenings and talks, and celebrated the addition of TV to its programme, which culminated in the Succession premiere on Friday night.

But the LFF was also criticised for not requiring guests and audiences to have a vaccination passport or proof of a negative Covid test, unlike Cannes, Venice, Toronto and other festivals. “I love both the New York and London film festivals, but the first is showing leadership by requiring all audiences to be vaccinated and the second isn’t, which is disappointing,” tweeted Dave Calhoun, deputy global editor of Time Out.

“We have been really rigorous around Covid protocols in line with both government guidance and other cultural events, and at the time of writing we have had no known cases of Covid at the festival,” Tuttle said at the weekend.

Her team, she added, had factored in “many additional layers of logistic planning, health and safety regulations alongside some unpredictability and difficulty of international travel… It’s been really rewarding to pull it off and see audiences and industry light up again after the past 18 months.”

Other winners this year included Liz Garbus, who received the Grierson award for best documentary for Becoming Cousteau, a fresh take on the life of the inspiring inventor, explorer, environmentalist and film-maker Jacques-Yves Cousteau. According to Kim Longinotto, documentary competition president, it “highlights the most pressing issue of our time, climate change, and urges us all to take action now”.

Duncan Speakman triumphed in the immersive art and XR category for Only Expansion. Love, Dad, a short film exploring film-maker Diana Cam Van Nguyen’s fractured relationship with her father, won the prize for best short film, and Mounia Akl won the audience award for Costa Brava Lebanon.

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