"I always feel that in filmmaking, if you satisfy the audience, you know there's something wrong," says the 43-year-old Iranian filmmaker Rafi Pitts. It's a bold statement and one that drives his fifth feature film, The Hunter. Pitts has been determined to make a movie that leaves the audience constantly questioning what is truth and what is fiction. We don't even know if the main protagonist is a hero or a villain.
It has one of the best sequences of opening credits of any recent film: as a rebellious soundtrack blares, grainy, pixelated images are slowly revealed to be part of a photograph depicting a group of Iranian motorcyclists readying themselves to drive over an American flag. It's an image taken from the Iranian Revolution and is the starting point of modern Iranian history. The director himself plays Ali Alavi, an ex-convict who lives in Tehran with his wife Sara (Mitra Hajjar) and their daughter (played by Saba Yaghoobi). Ali works as a security guard and often goes shooting in the woods for sport. On one such occasion he returns and his wife and child have disappeared. Therein follows a Kafkaesque series of events as he tries to discover what happened to his family. When he learns that a stray bullet has killed his wife and child - innocent bystanders in a skirmish between election protestors and the police - Ali snaps. He shoots two officers and goes on the run.
Pitts wants to smoke during our interview, so we perch ourselves on a tiny balcony, surrounded by television equipment. The unconventional setting suits the conversation that starts with me admitting that I found the ending of The Hunter unsatisfactory. Pitts defends his position like the doubting juror in Twelve Angry Men, and admittedly, his argument is a strong one. What's unarguable is that in making a thriller, Pitts has broken from the conventions of Iranian cinema that made directors Abaas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf international celebrities who led the Iranian New Wave in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.
Pitts, who was educated in England says, "I wanted to break the barriers of neo-realism that Iranian cinema is stuck in somehow. I wanted to make neo-realism meet the West - a formalist thing." Neo-realism started in Italy after the Second World War when Italian directors used real locations as backdrops to their films. Pitts continues, "I mean, originally, when I started out, I had a crazy idea that didn't really work with the producers. The idea was to make two films, one was called The Hunter and the other was called Deranged. Both films would have had the same script, but one would have been a realist Iranian film and the other an American formalist film."
That was a pipe dream, though, and in the end Pitts made an Iranian film in the manner of an American 1960s / 1970s thriller. (think The French Connection and Bullitt). The screenwriter, actor and director says this will not come as a surprise to anyone living in Iran. "The irony is the resemblance between the two cities, Tehran and LA - they're [very similar]. That's why we call Los Angeles, Tehrangeles. So there is that element there. There are other elements [connecting The Hunter with 1970s Hollywood], too - revenge, the myth, and a lot of other resemblances that are ironic, like mortality and good versus evil."
Pitts lives in Paris and hopes that one day his film will be released in Tehran. This may prove difficult, as the action is populated with oblique references to last year's election in Iran, although we never see any protests or electioneering directly on screen. Pitts feels that in portraying the election in this way he is not being political, "The political aspect is one of the threads of the film. I don't think I've overplayed it. I don't mention any names of the candidates - and I don't mention any names for a purpose, as this will enable the action to be timeless.
"During filming, when everything started to happen the way it did in Iran, I was not going to stop myself or censor myself from anything." He backs this up by stating, "I'm not a political person. I don't believe in political parties; I don't belong to one." When I point out that this in itself is quite political, he responds, "Well, maybe. I believe in [having a]political stand, not political activity in the sense of a political party. Iran is a very complicated country - you can't just judge it as good and bad. It is very grey."
Born in Mashad, Iran, Pitts spent his childhood living in a basement flat underneath a post-production facility. He fled the country in 1981 as the war between Iran and Iraq raged. Pitts moved to England to study film, and began his career by making shorts. In the 1990s he moved to Paris and worked on films by directors Jacques Doillon, Jean-Luc Godard and Leos Carax before making his own feature film debut in 1997 with The Fifth Season, a romantic comedy about two feuding village families, which was the first Franco-Iranian co-production since the Iranian Revolution.
It was his 2000 film, Sanam, however, that would mark Pitts as a director to watch. It's a subtle and thought-provoking drama about a mother and son trying to cope with the death of their father and husband who is killed after being accused of stealing a horse. In 2003, Pitts was commissioned by French television to make a film as part of the Cinema, de notre temps series. He created the documentary Abel Ferrara: Not Guilty, which was shown at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland, and looks into the work of the maverick director Ferrara through the eyes of actress Echo Danon and production designer Frank DeCurtis.
Ferrara himself talks candidly, in a series of interviews, about his films King of New York and Bad Lieutenant, while Pitts shows how the US director's influence is as great, if not greater, than the influence exerted by the films produced in Iran. In many ways, The Hunter is the flip side of the coin of Pitts' last effort, the psycho-social drama It's Winter. The protagonist hits back in The Hunter - action that is in sharp contrast to the repression that prevails in It's Winter. When a father is suddenly laid off, he leaves his family and the country in search of employment. In his absence, the world he left behind changes dramatically when his wife, believing him to be dead, remarries.
What runs like a thread through all of Pitts's films is the sense that the Iranian Revolution hangs like a dark cloud over all the action. "As an Iranian", says Pitts, "you question all the time what that revolution was about." And as for the open-ended finale of The Hunter, Pitts says, "What I love about it is that everybody can sit down and talk about it. I'm a great fan of three dots [the ellipses]. I don't like full stops. So if you expect full stops, you are not going to get them."