INTERVIEW: Actor/Director: Rafi Pitts

Exiled Iranian film director Rafi Pitts is motivated just as much by the aesthetic beauty of Cinema as its political power. Having made his name in France with Sanam (2000), hailed as “the Iranian 400 Blows,” Pitts has consolidated himself as one of the Middle East’s most prominent film makers with Golden Bear Nominee It’s Winter (2006) and his latest film The Hunter (2010), for which he managed to return to Iran to film it. spoke with Rafi to discuss the recently released The Hunter, censorship - and Cinema Paradiso…

What was your inspiration behind The Hunter?

It comes from several sources I suppose (he drawls out nonchalantly through puffs of his cigarette – QA) - y’know when you have an idea there is not just one reason, but I would say that one of the primary reasons was that I wanted to make a film that spoke to a young generation living in a very young country. The majority of the country is under the age of 30 and I wanted to make a film from that point of view that broke down the boundaries of realism and asked some questions.

In the film itself, there is a huge preoccupation with sound and image more than words. Was this something you did on purpose?

Yes. It’s a symbol of the character not being able to express himself. That’s why he reacts the way he does within the film. It has to be believable as someone who can’t express themselves losing everything and becoming unstable. However, I do feel that in the film – you know a lot of people say there isn’t much dialogue – but I say it’s full of dialogue because sound is a form of dialogue; y’know sound always suggests what an image is, whereas an image never suggests what a sound is. And I used a lot of sound because you can do or say a lot with it and give the impression of a feeling, and you can also add tension to the film. It’s more subtle in a way than normal dialogue because it plays on the mind of an audience without telling them what is going on.

There is an obvious split in the film, the first half is certainly very art house whereas the second half changes and becomes more tense or psychological. Would you say this is a fair observation?

Yes, sure, I mean when you make a film, you don’t want to make it one-dimensional because all the films I like in the history of cinema have had several readings to them. So here, too, there is a political dimension, there is what I call a neo-realist western dimension, and there’s a classical tragic story of a man who is simply out for revenge. So you sort of try and give it as many layers and dimensions as possible so the audience can choose which dimension they want to see, and they will choose one depending on their own personality and experiences.

In the film, there are quite a lot of shots of cars, motorways and symbols of modern technology…

Yes, this was definitely my intention. I wanted to make it clear that I was speaking of the feelings of today, and that’s why I started off with that music and a picture from the Iranian revolution. You know the majority of the population wasn’t even born at the time of the revolution and today people are asking themselves why did we even have one, and what were the consequences of this revolution. So, it’s a backdrop to the film if you like and then, sure, the film takes its own course, but it was also a warning to what might happen if we can’t express ourselves.

Exactly what were you warning the newer generation against then?

What I try to do as a filmmaker is hold up a mirror to what is going on in society. And today in Iran, what’s going on in our society is that we don’t have that much time to live. You know the economical dire straits we’re living in, we have very little left, and I was trying to portray what would happen if the little we have left, such as spending time with our family, was taken away with us, and how we would react upon that. So, in that sense, it concerns a lot of people in Iran - we’ve become ticking time bombs because of the way the system is trying to rule us.

Do you think you were successful with this then?

(Pauses) Success isn’t something you should ask us filmmakers (he laughs – QA), but the success for me is on the viewers’ point of view. But really, it was a miracle that we managed to make the film over there in Iran. You know, really, to get the authorization to shoot such a film only came about because, at the time, the Ministry of Censorship thought that Iran was about to change, open or reform, and I think that’s why we managed to shoot the film. So had we not shot the film in that particular space of time, we would never have been able to shoot it. Had we tried three years earlier, I don’t think they would have given us permission, had we tried to shoot it after the riots in June 2009, it would have been impossible, so it was in that case a success. There is this expression I like you know where they say “luck is where opportunity meets preparation,” so there was definitely that going on I think.

How difficult is it then to make a film with the censorship laws on directors?

Extremely difficult, but having said that, we used to say it was difficult before June 2009 and sure it was! But now, though, it’s become practically impossible…
   As you might have heard, two of our filmmakers, who are also two friends of mine - Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof - have both been given a prison sentence for an idea of a film they wanted to make. It’s not even a film that they’ve made! They wanted to reflect on what had happened during those riots and for that they’ve been charged with six year prison sentences, twenty years not allowed to leave the country and twenty years of not being allowed to practise their profession. So that gives you an idea of what’s facing the Iranian film industry at the moment.

You wrote an open letter last year to Ahmedinejad about this. Do you think this sort of behaviour will continue then?

I don’t think it’s going to continue because I can’t see how a government can have the false pretence of thinking they can stop young people being who they are. If you look at the history of the world, you’ll see the beauty of youth and that it knows how to take care of itself, and they’ll go and get it if it’s not at hand to them.
   Today, in Iran, people feel that their future has been taken away from them, that they have nothing left, so people will go out and get it. It’s very natural the youth are full of enthusiasm and they want to have a future, so they will go out and get it. The question is, will it take one year, or ten? Obviously, we want this to happen as soon as possible, we want to move forward, and we want this to happen, of course, without the threat of violence.

The protests that have happened in Egypt and elsewhere, can you see that happening in Iran?

Yes, I can (he pauses, and the mood has evidently shifted, with more weight, lengthier pauses and consideration behind each word – QA). For every woman man and child in Iran, if you feel you are being stopped of having something, what are you going to do? You’re going to go out and try to get it. So I don’t think there is any way of stopping that. I don’t think people are just going to be resigned to their fate anymore - people need to go out and…get their future. You know, it’s a very natural thing that’s happening right now.

Going back to the film, there’s a particular scene near the end of the film where the two policemen have a little squabble. What were you getting at here, was it highlighting a contrast between young and old, criticism of the corrupt system, or something else?

It was a symbol of what our society has become. The fact that there is a conflict between those two police officers shows you the diversity of what we’re dealing with and how much a uniform is only the cover of a book; you have to ‘read’ the book to know what’s going on because the cover won’t tell you. I wanted to show the discrepancies in the system because one of the police officers is very much for capital punishment whilst the other is a humanitarian very much against it, so already this shows up the contrasts in the systems and the quarrels that can exist within it.

So, was this a message to people not to judge the police and the system as all bad then?

I’ve never been keen in giving messages because I come from a country where they are giving us messages all the time! For me it’s always been about giving the audience the freedom of choice (he leans back and starts to relax with a glint in his eye – QA). Of course, you give them a narrative and, of course, you offer them a story, but I always tend to think of a film as a…okay, let me put it like this: in Iran, when we invite guests over for dinner, we place in front of them at the table several dishes, but we never tell them what they should eat; we leave them the choice of what they want to eat in whatever order. In my films, I try to offer them the same sort of choice; I give different dimensions and expect some people to take up one angle or perspective and certain other people another. If you look at the end of the film, there are several readings and I’ve never liked full stops but three dots to leave it open. For me it’s a way of respecting the audience.

What were your influences as a child that made you want to become a director?

Well, when I was younger, in Iran we saw a lot of American films from the 1970s that influenced us. Obviously, we saw them all dubbed in Persian, so not in English, and even older films by John Ford with John Wayne and (he starts to chuckle wistfully – QA) I remember the first time I heard John Wayne speak in English and I freaked out because I couldn’t believe this was the guy I’d known for years! I’d known him as this Iranian wise guy and now he was American. So, cinema, of course, influenced me, but also I lived under the post production studio in Tehran, so, obviously, I spent a lot of my childhood with editors in the offices above and I never felt like I was ever out of the film industry or that I was ever going to do anything outside of cinema.

Sounds like Cinema Paradiso…

I know right! (he smiles wildly and takes excited puffs of his cigarette and continues animatedly - QA). But Cinema Paradiso is maybe a more romantic and idealised version.
Yeah, well I lived with my mother as a child, and she was only 17 years older than me. The reason why we lived under the post production studio was because she felt there would be people there who could look out for me. And then, over time, those people became my family in a way, so that’s why I’m still now so attached to the Iranian film industry.

Now that you live in France, what cultural differences do you notice then between the different Arab Diaspora’s; like, for example, the Maghreb who live in France and those who’ve stayed in Iran?

You know, we all come from different cultural backgrounds; I think it’s unfair to just label people as from ‘the Arab world’. I find it such a strange thing to say because the Arab world is such a diverse world. It’s like an Iranian saying the ‘European world’ when there is so much diversity even in Europe, from France to England to even other places. Also, with language, too, I mean in Iran, we speak Persian, so is that the Arab world? Let’s say then that people mean the ‘Muslim’ world – well even there are so many differences in the countries. So there’s a great diversity and by trying to simplify it is like trying to simply Europe – it’s not possible.

Does it annoy you then when people from the West label everything from the Middle East together?

It doesn’t annoy me as such, because you get that from both sides. People tend to want to simplify things because they feel that by simplifying things, they’ll understand it better – but I just think that the beauty of humanity is its depth and the surface is just the surface. Once you acknowledge the depth and difference in cultures things get interesting. I mean even if you were to look at nationalities, I’ve never really met anyone in England who for me completely represents what is English. An individual comes from a cultural background, his own personal background and becomes what they are, and that’s what’s fascinating. We have a tendency, though, to simplify individuals to represent their nationalities, which I don’t think is right.

So, let’s talk about the future of Iranian directors. Can you see a new younger generation of filmmakers coming through behind you? Is there a future for Iranian Cinema?

Well, that’s what was about to happen before all of these events took place in a way. Our cinema, which the world knows as Iranian neo-realism, became more anti-social realism, and became more aggressive with the way we looked at things and the way we would approach our problems in society. At the beginning of all this, there was the film No One Knows About The Persian Cats and there were a lot of films out there being made to point out the points of view of the younger generation (he starts to regain his confidence and previous manner apparent through a louder voice – QA), and I don’t think that now it’s going to stop. It might have come to a sudden stop now, but it’s only natural that artists and filmmakers and young people will find ways of expressing themselves. Now film might take on a modern and new dimension, but I don’t think that Iranian cinema will stop simply because the government wants it to stop. And, in fact, as you probably notice, as soon as a government wants to put a stop to something, this only gives the artist or filmmaker more enthusiasm and drive to make it because an artist doesn’t have any other choice. That’s his profession, that’s his being and you can’t stop people from…being.

What’s the future for you then? Have you got any more ideas in the pipeline?

There are ideas, yes, of course. I’d like to go back to Iran and make another film. I hope (he stresses – QA) I can go back to Iran and make another film…and I’d like to think that one day I can. Because, somehow, we need to believe in possibilities, as that’s the way we keep on going forward. Where I come from, it’s a country where you live by the day; you don’t really calculate the next month or the next year, you just go through your day, and by the end of the day that’s what your life is about. It creates a sense of urgency in people, so I won’t stop making films, and I’ll find a way of going back and doing it. QA

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