From the start, it was clear that Rafi Pitts was a filmmaker concerned with more than mere entertainment.
His first feature, 1997's Season Five, was the first Franco-Iranian coproduction since Iran's 1979 Revolution (when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini overthrew the monarchy, and the country became an Islamic republic), and it also marked the first time since that tumultuous upheaval that an exiled Iranian filmmaker had made a film in his native country.
Having graduated with a BA (Hons) Degree in Film and Photography from Harrow College in 1991, Pitts then moved to France, where he worked with the likes of Jean-Luc Godard and Leos Carax. His 2000 film, Sanan, was hailed by the French as the Iranian 400 Blows. His 2003 documentary, Cinema, de notre temps: Abel Ferrara: Not Guilty, caused controversy, whilst 2006's It's Winter was nominated for the Golden Bear at Berlin.
Still living in exile, Pitts' latest offering, The Hunter, tells of one man reaching breaking point, randomly shooting two policemen shortly after discovering that not only his wife but also his young daughter have been murdered in street battle crossfire. The second part of the film marks a distinct shift in gear, as our anti-hero, after a chase, finds himself lost in the woods with two policemen, one hellbent on revenge, the other sympathetic.
Set during the run-up to the 2009 presidential elections, Pitts is quick to point out that The Hunter would be an impossible film to push through the Iranian authorities today.
PAUL BYRNE: You've said before, "I'm more interested in the human condition than in governments and the politics they do" - surely some mistake?
RAFI PITTS: Of course. When I say that, I'm trying to provoke the idea that I don't belong to a political party, I don't believe in political parties, but I do believe in my fellow man, and I will do everything I can to help him. I come from a country where it is very difficult to believe in political parties.
So, how did you explain this particular fable to Iranian authorities when looking for a permit to shoot? You open on a photograph of the Pasdaran - the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps - celebrating the first anniversary of the Iranian revolution. Were the authorities actually okay with all this?
Well, okay with it would be a big word, wouldn't it? When I originally set out to make the film, this all started before the election, the process of trying to get a permit to shoot was extremely difficult. But I must say that the people working in the Board Of Censorship at the time honestly thought that a change was going to come. In America, Obama had just come into power, and it seemed very likely that the government in Iran was going to change, and there was a change coming that would be better for everybody. That's how we got permission to shoot. Now, the idea that I came up with for the script was more of a social one, caring about my fellow man again, whereby economy has taken such a big role in society - whether it be in my country or anywhere else - that everybody's life is coming to a bare minimum of being able to see their family or not, and what would happen if it was taken away from them.
Now, the irony was that when we were making The Hunter we had no idea that there were many more people upset about the situation, that there were a lot of angry people. We were a very young crew, and it's just very strange that reality took over. But we finished shooting two days before the riots broke out, and obviously we had wanted to shoot the film after the riots, it would have been impossible.
Those riots kicked off when incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won - according to the Islamic Republic News Agency - with 62% of the vote, a claim not exactly embraced by many in the Western world. You've said before the Pasadaran have been employed by Ahmadinejad to attack civilians trying to exercise free speech - how is your standing in Iran?
Within my country, currently the filmmaker is in big trouble, whoever he is. One of our great filmmakers - I'm sure you've heard about this man; Jafar Panahi [The Circle, Offside] - who was put in prison for an idea of a film that he wanted to make. Three months in prison for an idea of a film that he wanted to make. So, that gives you a good idea of what's happening in the film industry in Iran, or to anyone who happens to be critical of what is happening. But it is my job to point out to the authorities that instead of dismantling the film industry they should sit down and think, all we're trying to do - and this is our job as filmmakers, I believe - is hold up a mirror upon society. But if what they see in the mirror they don't like, that's not our fault, for holding it up. And that's the difficulty that we have today. For some peculiar reason - and it happens to a lot of countries who like to dictate to their people - they think that the filmmakers of Iran are against their country. And that's the most ridiculous idea that they could come up with. But they are dismantling the film industry at a very high speed, and I can assure you that they won't be able to do it, because we're going to stand up for our rights, with regards to it. But they are doing everything they can, and I think it's unfair, because, at the end of the day - and this is coming back to the political parties - the choice of the Green movement was given to us by the system, by the authorities. Where it becomes very violent is when that choice is made by an industry, or by populations, and they are attacked because of it, and that's just obscene.
As an Iranian filmmaker addressing his own country, it's got to be a struggle every time. Do you actually feel content, doing this work?
Content? No, I don't think I feel content. In fact, The Hunter was so hard on me - psychologically as well as physically - that I really can't say that I'm content. Angry, yes. Angry that I can't show the film in my own country? Of course I'm angry. Angry because they think I'm doing something against my country? Of course I'm angry. I don't believe in a political party, because I don't like to belong. That's my thing, I don't like to belong to groups. But I do believe that, you know, my politics is to say something to somebody who disagrees, and debate and hopefully get him to agree to disagree. Or, at least provoke an idea. I would never make a film for people who agree with me, because then I don't see a movement in that. But I would like to provoke people who disagree with me, and I think that place is in my country. So, I will do everything I can for the film to be shown there. But, obviously today, when a fellow filmmaker of mine, Jafar, is not allowed to make a film, and is put into prison for an idea of a film, it doesn't leave much hope. But I think, eventually... In no part of the history, in any part of the world, have they managed to stop artists from expressing themselves. So, I don't think that is going to change. I think we will always continue to express ourselves.
Do you know if Ahmadinejad has seen the film? Or maybe he's not a fan of what you call a "neorealist Western"?
Well, what I did, just to make sure that this happened, when we had our screening at the Berlin Film Festival, I sent them a 35MM copy, simultaneously.
There was no response.
And would you assume they watched it?
I would assume that they have seen it.
Does that make you proud? Nervous?
Nervous isn't the word, because I don't feel guilty about doing what I have done. I don't think that I've done anything wrong. I'm just trying to create a debate.
But then, Jafar did nothing wrong either. That's the horror of it. It's not about being right or wrong.
I know, but we can't give up, can we? When you do this kind of thing, you only think one day at a time. You don't really think any more than that. It's step-by-step really.
You take the lead role of Ali here, having worked as an actor only once before, in the video game Isabelle...
Yeah [laughs], that was for a friend. That was just a voice.
The decision to play this dark, muted man - what was the attraction?
What actually happened was, once we got the permit to shoot, I had an actor for the lead role, but he was just very unpredictable, very hard to work with, and he had his own difficulties and problems, and he couldn't be in the film. The problem was I found out about this on the first day of shooting, and he showed up late, and all of these things happened. The difficulty was, when we got the permission to shoot, on the permit is the name of the director, cinematographer and leading actors. Now, once you change the actors, you have to go back and get permission again. So the risk was, will we get permission to shoot or not? So, then it became a couple of hours of chain smoking, and I ended up in the film.
Was it a big step, or just another day at the office?
It was like jumping out of a plane without a parachute.
Well, you landed on your feet. Did you know at any point that it was working?
I didn't, actually. I honestly just decided to let go, and live the full experience of it. And, of course, being against non-actors, I just had to be me. And that meant going to a very dark place. And it wasn't very easy, because I had to be sincere, because working against non-actors, they have real emotions. So, if you pretend, they would see. So it had to be very sincere, and that was very difficult to deal with.
People have picked up on what they believe is heavy Green Movement symbolism in the movie, but you have said it's mere coincidence that Ali's car is green, that his apartment is predominantly green. Are you just being coy?
No, no, I'm being honest. I wouldn't use... as much as I know which side I voted for, I wouldn't pretend others. I did think of the colour green, and I remember it was a week later that the Green Movement chose that colour, and I don't think there was any coincidence. It does feel very strange though, given all that happened afterwards, to have everything going in your direction as a filmmaker. You feel very uncomfortable when that happens, but, as much as I agree with the Green Movement, I'm not going to pretend that we chose that colour because they chose it.
Growing up in Tehran, where did the love of film spring from? Was there a point early on when you just knew?
Yeah, because, at first, I wanted to be an editor. I lived underneath this post-production studio, and the nicest people in the industry were editors.I kept going upstairs, and they were really nice. Everybody else was much more tough, and so I wanted to become an editor. Then, when I went to film school in London, my fellow film students wouldn't let me edit. They kept being precious about their images, so, I ended up making my first short film, and got hooked, deciding that was what I was going to do in order to get the rushes so I could edit.
Do you feel a loyalty to Iran and Iranian film? If Bruckheimer called tomorrow, with Nicolas Cage as a magic waffle, would you jump on the next plane?
Nicolas Cage as a magic waffle? I would jump on that plane [laughs]. No, no, I'm joking. The beauty with filmmaking is that it doesn't have borders. In Iran, we understand films from Japan, Italy, wherever, as long as they are sincere. And my ambition as a filmmaker is to be sincere. I don't think I would be very good at being given orders to, because I come from a country where they think they can give you orders, to execute them properly, but I think that if I could relate to something, I wouldn't have a problem doing it.
What's next for you?
Films always come from inside me somehow, and they just find their way out, so, I'm sure I have a film inside me struggling to get out. But I'm still trying to struggle to get on.
It's plainly more than just a labour of love for you. You struggle that little bit more than filmmakers here in Ireland to get your voice heard...
Don't underestimate it - I think all filmmakers are hooked in a way, and it's always a struggle. There was a phrase by Frank Capra back in 1947; 'Filmmaking is like heroin; once you shoot, it's for life'. I think we're all addicts in that sense.
Is there any chance we could do an exchange between M. Night Shyamalan and Jafar Panahi?
We should start a petition...
Words - Paul Byrne
The Hunter (Shekarchi) is now showing in Irish cinemas