The Iranian director Rafi Pitts talks to LWLies...
LWLies: To kick things off, can you talk a little bit about the book and the poem that inspired It’s Winter? Pitts: Well the book was written in 1968 by the writer Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, who is one of our best writers. Ironically, he’s never let anybody adapt one of his stories for the screen. And there’s a poem, which… I even dedicated the film to the poet, the poem is called Winter and it’s by Mehdi Akhavan Saless, who passed away in the late ’80s. They’re both prominent figures – they’ve always talked about the working class and the difficulties they’ve been through. I was inspired by them and wanted to tell the story through the people they were telling the story about because it’s a well known book.
LWLies: Does the idea of writing about the working classes fit into either a tradition of Iranian literature or cinema? Pitts: It was the left wing that started it during the pre-revolutionary period. That wasn’t liked by the governments on both sides because they always discuss issues around the fact that nothing’s been resolved. Now, what I always say is why is it, when the story and the poem were written 50 years ago when I wasn’t born, that I identify with them? That’s the question I ask my government.
LWLies: Is the suggestion that nothing has been done deliberately? Or that there’s no political will to do anything? Pitts: It’s the economic situation. I mean, I don’t take sides politically because I don’t like politics. I don’t like politicians. But what I feel I need to do is raise… And it’s not just a question of Iran, this situation could exist anywhere really, in any bloc of Eastern Europe or the Middle East, it’s the pain and the human condition that I’m interested in – how that’s resolved is another issue, but just to be able to show it and portray it.
LWLies: One of the things you’ve said is that there were difficulties shooting in the garage where the mechanics work because they’re used to the stereotyped views of the working classes being crooked. Pitts: Oh they’ve been stereotyped in commercial cinema, but they generally don’t like television or cinema. In fact, they’d never shot in the neighbourhood we shot in.
LWLies: Is that because of the way they’re portrayed or is there anything more deep seated about it? Pitts: Because of the way they’re portrayed, the way they’re treated – they’re angry. And I lived there for a while before the film just to get to know them and to convince them that I wanted to tell a story from their point of view, and that I wanted their truth, not mine.
LWLies: So you lived there for a couple of months? Pitts: I spent a couple of months in the garage looking for actors, but the actual neighbourhood I’ve known since I was a kid – I used to play football there.
LWLies: The way you were talking about it made you sound more like an actor than a director – that’s it’s your personal responsibility almost to get under the skin of the place. Pitts: Of course. I find it… I did a film with Abel Ferrara called Abel Ferrara: Not Guilty before this one, and what I find fascinating – because I’ve only made four films so I haven’t been through a lifetime of filmmaking – but the more I work the more I realise that I need to get under their skin. By saying that, I find myself in a reverse role of what traditional cinema would be where I need to become them to tell their stories. Sometimes it’s a little bit dangerous because the same thing that happens to an actor happens to me: I get so involved that it’s painful, and then it’s hard to get out of.
LWLies: This is the thing, you say that you don’t think cinema should be political, it shouldn’t tell people what to think. And yet if you’re so involved in people’s lives, how can you separate those two things – getting under their skin and finding the truth in their story and yet maintaining that objectivity? Pitts: What I try to do is give… Well, it’s a bit like meeting someone and then you make up your mind. That’s what I mean by not dictating. So what I try to do is make sure you meet that person and by becoming them when I work and by looking at them and then giving you the information rather than me giving the information. There’ll be a storyline and then I’ll start looking for the character who I feel close to in my own life, which would normally be a marginal character as my sympathies have always been with marginalised people, someone who doesn’t fit into the box, who you can’t decide where he comes from or where he’s going. Then once I find the person, whether an actor or a non-actor it doesn’t really matter, but someone who is that person then from thereon what fascinates me is that I find myself in the film, and they tell me what’s going on in their head. I spend more time working talking to them about everything but the film, and then by what they give me I take them towards where they are to get their real emotion.
LWLies: That’s quite mechanical – you’re looking for the truth in them, but there’s a very systematic way of going about it. Pitts: It will always be my truth, but it will also be their truth. My truth is whereby there’s something I want to say, that’s one layer of the film – let’s say the storyline will be one layer of the film that goes from A to Z. In order to finance a film you can’t just improvise a film otherwise it just won’t happen. That’s the first layer, then the second layer comes from the characters. You start finding the characters, now you look for the real person – the main character and all the other ones, and the actress is a pin up, she’s a star in Iran. Why I choose her is to get those guys to see the film, otherwise they’ll never see the film, why would they? And each one of those people becomes my obsession to tell those points of view. Then that’s the second layer. Then you get another layer, which will be how I frame that thing based on how I feel about the group of the people. Here in this film they’re caught in a maze, a very violent maze because it’s straight ahead. There are no twists and no turns, they’re all in this corridor that they can’t get out of. What I’m trying to say is… And then there’s the crew, there’s also the film crew. I choose actors but I choose the film crew in the same way that I choose actors. Ironically, I look for character in my film crew. So, for example, something crazy but my cinematographer is a very calm, shy man, hardly talks, very good cinematographer. There’s another cinematographer who’s just as good as he is but he talks and is very charming and is very funny. Now if you’re working with a commercial actress, you can’t have the other cinematographer because she’s used to commercial cinema, she’s going to act out for him, and so she will no longer be in that reality. I need a cinematographer who will be cold enough for her not to be… So what I find fascinating as I learn film and I go on, is how much, you know, normally they would say, ‘Oh, the director says this and the director says that,’ and that’s how it’s done. For me, the reflection of the crew inside a film is just as important as what you see in the frame, and that’s what builds it up. That becomes also a layer of the film – how the actress feels about the cinematographer becomes part of the film because they bounce off each other.
LWLies: You’ve talked about truth in movie making, but when you’re talking about an individual’s truths, you’re talking about their beliefs, and beliefs are political things in themselves, and that seems bound to seep into your films. Pitts: Of course, of course. We know this by now, that any film is subjective, it’s a filmmaker’s point of view, there’s no doubt about that. But within that what I mean is that I’ll have a point of view when I’m on the set. Now in Iran, ironically, even though we’ve got censorship, we have a certain freedom, which is the artistic choice and the way we go about it. Today, in the West, if you were to go and find a non-actor, it would be very difficult to finance a film with that person. Today in cinema you’re locked by your script – you can’t take a risk, you can’t put yourself in danger. For me, the essence of filmmaking is to put yourself in danger. If you go in with an extremely set idea, and for me a nightmare would be a storyboard, you end up locking yourself in your point of view and not learning from your subject. What I mean by ‘learning’ is if I decide that I’m going to choose a real person with real emotions and their real reasons, I shouldn’t blind myself with my point of view. Obviously I’m going to choose within what they propose to me to get closer to my own personal emotions, but if I don’t listen to that and I look in a tunnel instead of looking at the full picture and then playing with it, I’m killing my emotion and their emotion, and listening to a piece of paper. I think there’s something wrong with that. Today, unfortunately because of economic reasons because of the way cinema is run, you’re less and less allowed to do that. Ironically, in Iran, even though we’ve got censorship the one thing we can do is the artistic thing; we have the freedom of being able to do what we want to do in the artistic choice. Then you have the other boundaries, so at the end of the day if you weight them out it’s probably the same but for me the artistic choice is more important than the economical choice.
LWLies: It’s interesting to hear you mention commercial Iranian cinema, one of the easy ways of thinking about ‘Iranian cinema’ is that there’s a national cinematic identity. To what extent is that a healthy way of looking at it? Pitts: I actually think that what people call Iranian cinema outside Iran isn’t Iranian cinema. That’s the wrong word to use. It’s the neo-realist movement of the Iranian cinema. The reason why it’s probably chosen by the outside is it’s what’s closer to reality, to everyday life, otherwise in Iran the neo-realist movement is… There’s probably even less directors in the neo-realist movement than in the formalist movement. The formalist movement is influenced by Hitchcock and Orson Welles or Kurosawa, but they’re so influenced by those filmmakers that they tend to leave their country, they tend to even use music that would be closer to [???]’s music. I think that that’s probably a reason why outside Iran people will say, ‘What is going on?’
LWLies: What does commercial Iranian cinema look like then? How does it accord with censorship? Pitts: It’s still in the same boundaries; we all have the same boundaries. If you take the simple idea of censorship, for example, outside of the ideological ones would be the relationship between a man and a woman. A man and a woman in Iranian cinema are not allowed to hold hands, that’s part of the rules. You could never show a woman without her headscarf, even if she’s in bed, which there is something very peculiar about, so you can’t show that. That concerns all cinema, you know? We all have the same rules. So you have in our commercial cinema a cinema that resembles Bollywood but we’re not allowed to sing and dance. So you have that and of course that pleases the audiences. It’s a lot more theatrical, very similar to Indian cinema. The neo-realist movement has existed since the early sixties in Iran. The early sixties… When I say that, I would say that the best film that has been made in the history of our cinema lasts 22 minutes. It’s a film called The House is Black by a woman called Forugh Farrokhzad. She died five years after she made the film in an accident. Now, her film, none of us, and I mean none of us, have been able to make a film as good as that one. If you ever get a chance to see that film, it’s the proof that length doesn’t mean anything in cinema. As I grew up in Iran until the eighties, we never used to say ‘short film’, ‘documentary’, blah blah blah, we’d always say, ‘A film by…’ no matter what the length was, it didn’t really matter. Now with the economic thing, things have been put into a box, which is a shame because it kills that artistic thing. The House is Black lasts 22 minutes and it’s perfect.
LWLies: What is the film about, and what is it about the film that you love? Pitts: It’s a film about a village that the Shah created, where all the people who had leprosy were condemned to live, in that village. So everyone in that village has leprosy, and it’s a portrayal of society through their life, through the way they live their day-to-day life. What I love about it is probably that it’s a film out of the full history of cinema that slapped me the hardest in the face in a way that a lot of other films have never done because she’s so true to herself. And this was made in 1962, even commissioned by the Shah at the time, but I don’t think he expected to see what he got. She was a poet who influenced Kiarostami. Then after her, in ’74 and ’75 there was a filmmaker who unfortunately died in ’98 but he was living in exile, a man called Sohrab Shahid Saless who made two films. In ’74 he made a film called The Simple Event, and in ’75 a film called Still Life. They are the beginning of the real neo-realist movement in Iran. Now, what I find fascinating is that for me the Iranian neo-realist movement has existed in the ’70s, but it exists in the outside world ever since Satyajit Ray in India died. If you look closely at, say, the Cahiers du Cinéma in France, they talk of Kiarostami six months after the death of Satyajit Ray, so I think that there’s an obsession in the west for neo-realism in order to get to know a country, and that’s why it exists. But from there to say that this is Iranian cinema, I think that you could argue that a certain Argentinean cinema at the moment resembles the Iranian cinema, and therefore what is national cinema?
LWLies: It seems like in the west there’s a cultural arrogance that says we’re going to understand this country by mediating it through the things that we understand and the things that we’ve invented and then let you into our club, rather than taking it on its own terms. Pitts: Well, yes, that’s the absurdity of cinema in general. I’ve never believed in any national cinema. I have a difficulty… I can understand, say, if you take America, they have the studio system and the independent system, but not the national idea of American cinema, because in that case the studio system exists in many parts outside America. Same with independent cinema. When I look at Italian cinema, which one is Italian cinema? Is it the Taviani brothers or Antonioni? Is it Pasolini or Fellini? Which is the one that’s going to represent it as a nation? And I think that our cinema is in danger whereby because everybody says that they have a notion of what Iranian cinema is, there’s a misunderstanding of what Iranian cinema is because the difference between Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi… They have nothing to do with each other. They might all have a point of view that brings them close to neo-realism, but they’re as close to each other as Rosselini and the Taviani brothers. You can’t lock them down. For me, cinema is the point of view of a person, of course with a cultural background, there’s no doubt about that, but then it’s a point of view. I come from Iran with 60 million other people, that’s 60 million points of view, so you can’t pin it down to one person representing an entire nation – that’s completely absurd. Especially with cinema because if there’s one art that doesn’t have borders, it’s cinema, ever since the beginning of time. I mean, in Iran we’ve seen films from all over the world and we understand them, and the same for the rest of the world. When the rest of the world looks at Satyajit Ray, they’re not Indian but they understand him. Or Kurosawa. Or Ozu. They understand them. But I think that generally stems from the fact that – and this is the most difficult thing for a filmmaker – is to just be yourself. But the world of cinema doesn’t like that because the more we go forward the more the world of cinema doesn’t want to take risks because of the financial and economic side. And so they kill the identity, they’re afraid of originality so we like to put things in a box. But the Iranian neo-realist movement, within that movement there are completely different filmmakers. My film has no resemblance to any of these people simply by the rules it plays with. Kiarostami will use a real person and shoot them within their reality and his story will stem from that; I have a story and I will bring the real people in – I’m looking more for the real emotion and that’s why I think of them more as actors but I’m lucky to have a real person so I want the real emotion. But I’m not looking to tell the audience that, ‘Oh look, you’re looking at a real person’. Kiarostami in the way he works will say, ‘This is a real person,’ and you will immediately understand that, you know? So I think they’re all variations and it’s a shame to keep the misunderstanding because I think if Iranian cinema as it’s called outside is kept the way it is, in a box, it will not last very long because by the mere fact that people on the outside have chosen only the neo-realist movement, that’s a way of killing it because you are not allowing the variety within that system.
LWLies: You mentioned the kind of relationship between men and women that’s allowed to be portrayed by the censors, one of the things going on in This is Winter is an investigation of masculinity and the relationship between men and women, the thing that’s striking is that the character finds more happiness among men than he does with his wife. Where does the idea that men thrive amongst men come from? Is that something about the Iranian character? Pitts: There’s that side to it and there’s also the isolation of women. Because that’s a reality. Men in Iran isolate women. The love they give to women isn’t the love that they deserve, and so the coldness that you get from the film – for me anyway because I always like to leave it up to the audience to take what they want to take – but for me it’s ironic that she’s more like an idol, the ideal woman that he would like to have rather than a love that he would like to give. He’s a very selfish character, he only cares about himself. So she’s more of an object to him even though at the end it changes. There’s this… It’s a macho society whereby men enjoy themselves and women rarely get the chance to enjoy themselves.
LWLies: Were you not tempted then to give her more of a voice in the film, because she very much recedes into the background? Pitts: Well this is also interesting because this is the first Iranian film I’ve had released here, but it’s actually a trilogy. The first film I made was a film called Season Five. Season Five was how I imagined my country to be as a child – it’s a funny film, the central character is a woman, a very strong woman, and it’s the ideal country that doesn’t exist. That’s why it’s ‘Season Five’. Then I made a film called Sanam, which is the relationship between a mother and her son. The kid in Sanam is the young man that we see here, so I feel that I’ve been through the motions of expressing the woman’s point of view in the first two, and this one for me is pinpointing the male side of Iran. I mean, it’s also… Once you portray your country as being governed by winter, you need to go ice cold, and even within those boundaries, the love scene we see between the two, you know, like I said, the absurdity is that you can never show a woman in bed without her headscarf on, in Iran women don’t go to bed with their headscarves on, so from there on you start to think, ‘Okay, these are the boundaries I can’t cross, but what I can do is to suggest to the audience the sexual desires by staying away because the audience has its own sexual desires and their imagination will work better on that than me portraying a ridiculous situation between a man and a woman in doors.
LWLies: How would you characterise the state’s relationship to filmmaking? We hear so much negative press about the Iranian regime, but how involved are they? How bad a problem is censorship? Pitts: Well censorship… For the outside world it seems very violent, but for us it’s been there always. It’s not a new thing – it existed before the revolution, it exists today. It’s always been there. In fact, as crazy as it seems, if you took it away our cinema would collapse because the entire language of our cinema stems from that. Maybe that’s why it’s become interesting.
LWLies: Has censorship been a positive? Pitts: No, I wouldn’t call it positive because it’s very frustrating – if they took it away I’d jump in joy, but once it’s there and once you’ve grown up with it, it’s part of the game you have to play. Now, there’s two ways of going about it: if you make a political film, if I was to make a political film without going through those boundaries, I could get away with it but the film would never be shown in Iran. Then I would argue, what’s the point? If I made a political film slamming the government or whatever and showed it to the outside world that already disagrees with them, having a bunch of people who already agree with me sitting in a room, is that political? For me, that’s anything but political. It’s politically correct, and because we’re living in a world that’s politically correct you get fed up with that. So what I try to do is to play with the boundaries, go through all the system, yet try and get as far as I can within those boundaries so that the people see the film. Because for me, ‘political’ is about getting the people concerned by that problem to watch it, whether extremists or not. That’s why the actress is there, otherwise the workers would never see it.
LWLies: Since Iran was denounced in the Axis of Evil speech, a lot of people have said that the country described there isn’t the Iran they know. Pitts: No, it’s not.
LWLies: Is the view of Iran that we’re being fed… How does that accord with what you experience of the country? Pitts: Any part of the world when it’s portrayed by another part of the world will always portray the extreme sides, you know? It’s fascinating. It’s like, if you look at the riots in France in 2006, in France nobody knew about them, but the rest of the world thought that France was burning. Paris was burning. It wasn’t burning, but there’s a tendency to go towards the extreme. In Iran, if there’s a riot against such a country or another one the camera will be on that riot, but that’s not the country. So maybe that’s the false sense that’s given of Iran. But, then again, I suppose you need to do that in order to portray the darker side.
LWLies: Does the average person in Iran care at all about something like the Holocaust conference that went on last year? Or is it just politics and publicity stunts by the president? Pitts: That’s what I’d call it, yeah. I mean in Iran, everybody knows that there was second world war, everybody knows that there was a holocaust, that’s not something that can be denied. We have Jews in Iran – there’s a Jewish population in Iran. That’s the absurdity of politics. I mean, Iran is a very complicated country. What you must remember, or the fact is, Iran is a country where 70 per cent of our population is under the age of 30, that’s a hell of a population of young people. But the vision that’s given by the outside world is not that one. It’s the one of the 30 per cent that are the older people that aren’t under the age of 30. Now how many points of view of Iran have we had from the outside world that concern the 70 per cent? That’s why I wanted to make my film also, to talk about that 70 per cent who aren’t necessarily concerned by politics at all. The central character in my film doesn’t care who’s in power, he doesn’t even read the paper to think of who’s in power, all he wants to do is have a good time and get on with his life. But the atmosphere doesn’t let him so he’s shut down. That’s the reality of Iran. There’s too much of a hard life for you to worry about anything else. So what the world thinks is not what they’re concerned by, they’re just concerned by getting on with it. As far as the nuclear situation, that’s more of a national thing whereby people believe that we should have that nuclear capability as a natural thing. It has nothing to do with the extreme or the moderates; everybody is on that line, and when you live in a country like Iran – and I’m not necessarily defending a political faction in my country – but when you live in a country where there was a revolution and the reaction of the outside world to that revolution was giving weapons to Iraq to hammer it and a million people die in that war, it’s only natural that people in that country wonder why. I’m not talking about my personal reaction, but this is why the population’s reaction… They went through an eight-year war being hammered by the world and dealing with it on their own ground, and questioning why. If we’ve had a revolution, why do they attack us? That was the question that stuck in the minds of a lot of people. Because if you think of a million people dying, you can imagine how many families are concerned by that war. So that’s why there’s all this confusion. I think if we come to extremes in our country, it’s only a reaction that has been pushed into us by what happened in our history. It wasn’t a choice that was made. Having said that, the population from there on just wants to live and be okay with it. Technology is something that we’re obsessed by in Iran, everybody’s obsessed by it, and the nuclear question for Iranians is going forward, it’s not a question of nuclear weapons, it’s a question of having a technological capability so that, you know, people don’t look down on us. It’s more of that nationalism than any… There’s no hatred in the population. And they also think that maybe if that happens we won’t have all these economic sanctions, which are killing the country. I’m saying all this and it feels funny saying what I’m saying, but I’m just trying to give you a point of view that exists.
LWLies: What is it you love about movies? Rafi Pitts: What is it that I love about movies? Well, Frank Capra said it better than anyone else. He said – and this is in the ’40s – Frank Capra said, “Filmmaking is like heroin, once you shoot it’s for life.” So I think that sums it up. I think once you make a film you’re in trouble because you have to do it all the time to get that same shot.