Who is Rafi Pitts? That is what I asked myself before watching this box set. I am now ashamed to admit it, but id never heard of this filmmaker, and for that I should be shot.
The more educated and refined folks at Artificial Eye are releasing a three DVD set to celebrate the works of Pitts and the long awaited arrival of 12-year-old drama, Sanam. The box set includes Sanam, It’s Winter and “The Hunter” – all of which are reviewed below. So read on and then see for yourself: the wonder of Rafi Pitts.
Finally getting a DVD release (some 12 years late), Sanam is about a young boy called Issa (Ismail Amani) and his mother Sanam (Roya Nonahali). After Issa’s father is accused of being a horse thief, the man is shot dead. In the fallout, Sanam must cope with the juggling act of raising her son, working the family farm, pressuring authorities to investigate her husband’s death and weighing up the pros and cons of marrying an older man whom she does not love.
There are three words which describe Sanam (the film) – dusty, gloomy and slow. It feels like a post-modern western without the cowboys and guns. Following themes of legacy, redemption, matriarchal fear of violence and vengeance, Sanam does not bubble under the surface, but rather slowly heats up in the midday sun. It’s a film which rewards patience – but only just. In true resonance to the forefathers of his movement, Iranian director Rafi Pitts is less interested in telling a story, but rather accurately displaying the emotion of a period in the character’s history. Very little happens, except for a few moments of laughter, a brief fight and scenes of unrequited love.
Sanam (the character) floats through the film like a phantom. Her piercing green eyes look on at everything happening around her – she is like a wolf laying in wait. We expect that at any moment, she will be the one to avenge her husband’s demise. But the actions of others place doubt in our mind. Meanwhile, Issa is the complete opposite. His emotional and physical abhorrence of the ‘murder’ is evident in all he does. He is brash, wayward, and frankly – quite obnoxious. Amani has fun with his character, and he has an ‘old soul’ feel about him. There are two or three moments within the film, where Issa argues with old men. The dynamic he creates is absolutely spectacular. He adopts the mannerisms of his verbal opponent, yet keeps the immaturity and reckless anger of a young man – the result is charming and comical.
Everything that Pitts does feels like poetry. Even the scenes where nothing appears to be happening, there is a sense that beauty has been discovered in the off beats. Despite this, the film feels slightly too demanding for the overall viewing experience, and one cannot help but feel that the over eager thumbprints of a developing director are too obvious. Some extra scenes of gratifying dialogue would have bumped the film up quite a bit. But then again, Pitts isn’t out to entertain, he is just out to create something ‘real’.
It’s Winter (2006)
It’s Winter is the story of four people who’s lives intertwine during a period of hardship. Moktar (Hashem Abdi) decides to leave his wife Khatoun (Mitra Hajjar) and their little daughter behind, in order to go abroad in search of work. Marhab (Hashem Abdi) is a drifter who comes to town shortly after Moktar’s departure, and Ali Reza (Said Orkani) is the lonely mechanic who he befriends.
When Moktar fails to make any contact with his wife, she soon fears the worst, and eventually begins to develop a relationship with the handsome stranger who watches from afar. But Marhab is a rebel at heart and struggles to find work and settle down in a city where work is a rare commodity. As these two broken individuals embark on a romance, Marhab’s inability to work becomes more and more of an issue.
If one were to set It’s Winter in Ireland, it’d probably be a Ken Loach film. Set it in London and you’d expect Mike Leigh’s name in the credits. Set it in middle England and you’d think Shane Meadows made it…except you probably wouldn’t, because Rafi Pitts is a neo-realist through and through. His films may have elements of socio-realism about them, but deep down this is about art creating life rather than imitating it – and It’s Winter is his calling card. Despite its setting, the film has a definite ‘Britishness’ about it. The camera is uninvolved and distant; the soundtrack (poetry by Mehdi Sales) more like monologue than evocative accompaniment. Every camera angle feels important and specific – creating a three-dimensional environment outside of the lens. The dialogue is sparse and unrefined. And even inspirations of more ‘cinematic’ British aesthetics creep into the film. One particular scene involving an imposing maze of claustrophobic buildings would be right at home in the works of Alfred Hitchcock or Nicholas Roeg…so you won’t be surprised to learn that Pitts actually studied film in England.
Unlike some of the more ‘art house’ tendencies of many artistic directors, Pitts uses It’s Winter as an exercise in creating meaning in the everyday. Subtle and sublime nuances paint a world like looking through glass. His Iran is almost too real. He uses architecture, scenery and surroundings to tell a story. Trains steadily become synonymous with hope – whether growing or diminishing. Work, a key catalyst, is almost metaphorical for focus and success – with Khatoun being something of a muse who inspires a work ethic in the men she meets. There can be no coincidence that each scene Marhab shares with Khatoun and/or her daughter is immediately followed by a scene of him working. The use of snow and the bookending of imagery denote a feeling of season – history repeating itself. The title isn’t just about the snowy period, it’s about a time and emotion in people’s lives. This isn’t a film about four individuals; this is a film about humans as a collective, the blue collar life. It’s Winter may have been made in 2006, but it is more pertinent now than ever. In an almost dramatic irony, Pitts’ award winning film has become oh-so-political in the days of breadlines and rising unemployment – making It’s Winter increasingly brilliant with every day that passes.
An in-depth and interesting interview with Pitts proves to be a rewarding watch. Gaining insight into the man’s method and inspirations is a must for any film fan. But with only a ‘you-can-read-this-on-the-net’ written biography to accompany it, the DVD feels somewhat light on supplementary material.
“The Hunter” (2010)
The unofficial ‘counterpart’ to It’s Winter, “The Hunter” is about Ali Alavi (Rafi Pitts) – and man out to find his daughter after a shocking incident tears his family apart. Following a public act of aggression, Alavi is pursued into the woods by two police officers, and the three men slowly begin to twist and turn through a psychological maze of anger, fear and trust.
Pitts is on slightly different form with “The Hunter” (one assumes the quotation marks denote an alias style nickname for Alavi). From the opening title sequence of funky Joy Division style music and images of young Iranian men on motorbikes, you can tell that “The Hunter” will be a more conventional film. It’s relevant and timely, but for a different generation, and new audience. This is 60’s filmmaking for the modern day Iran – a masked reminder of films such as ‘If….’. The soundtrack is non-digetic, the narrative is non-linear, and the editing has jump cuts – this is a post-modern twist on the neo-realistic core. In short, “The Hunter” feels like a Tarantino script produced by Luc Besson and directed by Atom Egoyan. Despite this, Pitts never loses his grip of what has made him respected in the first place, and surprisingly does so whilst simultaneously acting in the main role.
The twilight cityscape feels modern and familiar. One almost forgets that “The Hunter” has deeper political themes pertinent to a war torn country. The Middle East that we see every day is often dusty, strange and archaic, so it’s usual to have those perceptions utterly destroyed. But Pitts doesn’t show this to look down his nose at us ignorant foreigners, he is simply showing what ‘is’ – and bravely so.
A catch-your-breath finale does not quite hit as hard as it should, and this is mostly due to a lack of sympathy for the characters involved. It’s refreshing to see Pitts branching out and experimenting with his techniques, but sometimes the more commercial conventions work best and there is no shame in embracing them. Pitts might not be working in Hollywood anytime soon, but it will be down to choice rather than effort. “The Hunter” is an example of a young rising auteur flexing some muscle, and he ends up creating a timid yet haunting take on the revenge thriller.
A trailer that makes the film look way more exciting than it actually is, and a short yet informative interview with Rafi Pitts.
The Rafi Pitts 3-Disc DVD collection is released on 28th May 2012 and is available from all good retailers.