It’s not easy to look past the sheer gravity – in terms of change, context and a cultural dawn – of the inaugural Red Sea International Film Festival. I spend most of the day walking the stony streets of the Historical District (Al Balad) in Jeddah, setting out to watch a film before getting overwhelmed by the heritage sights, sounds and oldness of the old city. I deliberately lose my way. More often than not, I stroll from one cinema hall to the other and back, with no purpose other than experiencing a place I wouldn’t have under normal circumstances. As I wrote in my first dispatch from here, the cinema itself might just be an afterthought this year. Such is the occasion. Sometimes, symbols transcend meaning.
But if there are two titles that remind us of why we’re here to begin with, let them be Brighton 4th and Hit the Road. Arguably two of the finest under-the-radar films of 2021, they’re so tender and funny and moving that I found myself skipping the next screenings on my schedule to sustain the trance that emerges from life-affirming cinema. I ended my day the moment these films ended – no late-night screenings, no parties – basking in the familiar pre-pandemic glow of being seen by a great film, not just vice versa. Brighton 4th, directed by Levan Tediashvili, is Georgia’s official submission to the Oscars – about a former wrestling champion named Kakhi who travels to New York to help his wayward son out of debt. And the latter is, well, directed by Panah Panahi – about a bittersweet family road trip across Iran’s rugged and bumpy landscape.
Both the films straddle the thin line between cultural specificity and universality, marinating a slow-burning tragedy in the rooted spices of Georgian community and Iranian identity. More importantly, both movies share a common theme: Ageing but good-humoured parents silently moving mountains to rescue sons in peril. For someone like myself – a person perpetually conflicted about empathy and loyalty towards parents in need, a son who fears being yanked behind in life by the fading health of his parents – chancing upon these two films could not have been timelier. It’s corny but true: some stories find you before it’s too late.
Brighton 4th stars Tediashvili as Kakhi, and thrives on his gentle-giant energy. The film neither opens with him nor closes with him, reiterating Kakhi’s reformed masculinity and behind-the-scenes selflessness in a narrative that is consciously at odds with his presence. It opens with his brother, who loses his money and apartment in Tbilisi by betting on Manchester United (too real), and Kakhi almost appears as a secondary character who steps out of the background and helps him out. No chastising, no judging, no “I told you so” drama. In a way, the storytelling tries to circumvent Kakhi’s neutral figure, often focusing on the gambling-addict son, the son’s caring girlfriend, the pop-up Georgian area in outer Brooklyn’s Brighton beach, and the tenants in a crowded house of immigrants. Yet, Kakhi wrestles the film itself, retaining his grasp over a slipping future and taking matters into his own hands – both literally and figuratively.
The distinct feature of the film is its naturalistic tone, at once welcoming the viewer into the Georgian fold and warning the viewer that it’s going to be loud, nostalgic and largely exclusive. At one point, the two men sent to teach a treacherous employer a lesson for not paying his staff come back with the ‘kidnapped’ man and end up singing the night away with him. In most other immigrant-based films – especially Indian ones – the writing would play up the colourfulness and idiosyncrasies of these characters: the employer would be evil and ruthless, the tenants would have ‘traits’ that distinguish them. But in Brighton 4th, everyone encroaches on everyone else’s space and the air is filled with overlapping banter and individual worries. Friends are an extension of enemies. It’s quite a feat by the actor-director, who also manages to fashion a lovely father-son tale with Ken-Loach-ish clarity amidst all the chaos.
Hit the Road opens with a child mimicking the notes of a painted piano on the foot cast of his father. (The music swings between ethereal and peppy – a running motif that inherits the director’s father Jafar Panahi’s meta-treatment of art as a harbinger of human expression). This opening image of the playful piano on the painful cast becomes emblematic of the film’s seamless duality. It is everything you need to know about Hit the Road in a single scene. The piano is the film’s outer levity: a road trip featuring four whimsical family members and the people they meet on the way. One of them is a chatty competitive cyclist who idolizes the disgraced Lance Armstrong – a scene that somehow lets the audience in on a visual joke that even the family is blind to. It’s so wryly filmed, with a distinct understanding of how background action can add and minus at once. The piano is also representative of the Life-is-Beautiful-ish ‘act’ the two parents are putting on to protect the child – whose pensive older brother is the driver of both car and premise – from the harsh reality of impending separation.
The painful cast represents the true purpose of this journey: The family is actually on the run, heading to the border to have the older son smuggled into a foreign country. The air is thick with grief that’s yet to hit, punctuated by the raucous kid’s flights of fancy – like a flesh-and-blood Calvin with his own Hobbes (a dying dog). Kids are tricky protagonists in both life and film, but young Rayan Sarlak’s performance rivals that of Noah Jupe’s in Honey Boy, especially in terms of what he stands for on an otherwise-solemn occasion. The trip is an adventure for him, and the sudden absence of a member only informs his spirit. “Here we go again,” an irritated but indulgent father mumbles when the little boy emerges from bed after a heavy night – a moment that made me shed happy tears for being so alive and attuned to the poignance of parental thought bubbles.
Hit the Road exists on the outskirts of actual storytelling, instead choosing to confront the viewer with an in-between-ness that’s usually missing from the ‘cinema’ of family. For instance, the mystery of why the son needs to escape is kept a mystery. Most films would inorganically weave the answer into the conversations between the family members, for the sake of exposition rather than lived-in texture. (“Is it not enough that we are helping you escape after you made a fool of yourself with those drugs?” or something.) But Hit the Road stays honest to its situation, letting the family converse in half-sentences and semi-truths, which is how real humans in real crises would communicate anyway. At no point would one feel the need to spell out the entire predicament – that’s just not how people speak – not least because a child is present in the car, but not even in the private exchanges between the parents and their escaping son. “You smoke too much while watching movies,” the mother tells him. “You cry too much,” the father tells him.
It’s up to the viewer to imagine the reason. If you’ve seen enough Pahani films, the answer lies in the setting, not the person. It’s Iran: freedom of expression is curtailed, artistic freedom is banned, living is restricted. The only pieces of information we get is that the parents have put their house up to pay for the son’s bail, and cell phones aren’t allowed as a precautionary measure. Why was the son in jail? Was he gay? Was he eloping? Was he a filmmaker? Was he a journalist? Did he sell drugs? Does it matter? None of these possibilities diminish the beating heart at the core of the film – the idea of unconditional familyhood, and the concept of adults sacrificing everything to rescue their own. It’s Iran, but it’s also humanity. It’s Saudi Arabia, but it’s also the world. Such films always ensure that the interplay between foreground and backdrop mirrors the relationship between its characters and the audience watching them. Unlike the country it comes from, it gives us the freedom to choose – Do we want to be the cast or the piano? Do we want to be the music that liberates the shackled soul or the cyclist that speeds by? Either way, we will win by losing. And we will watch by living.