Iranian-born filmmaker Rafi Pitts received his filmmaking education in the UK and in France. Having spent his youth in Tehran, Pitts moved to England with his father in 1981 following the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq. He studied film and photography at the University of Westminster before relocating to Paris in the early nineties. He worked as a production assistant on Leos Carax’s Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, as a post-production supervisor on the Amnesty anthology Contre l’oubli (Lest We Forget) which brought together a host of French filmmaking greats, and as a casting director on Jacques Doillon’s Le Jeune Werther. He also made his first short film there in 1991 and would return in 2005 to write and direct an episode of Cinéma, de Notre Temps on Abel Ferrara. (That episode, incidentally, will be appearing as an extra on Arrow Video’s upcoming Blu-ray of King of New York.)
All of Pitts’ features to date - from 1997’s Session Five onwards - have been filmed and financed in Iran. And yet watching three of them in quick succession, as Artificial Eye’s new boxed-set allows for, it’s impossible not to sense something of the outsider about them. Here in the UK we’ve been fortunate enough to sample a great deal of Iranian cinema over the past couple of decades, with the works of Abbas Kiarostami, the Makhmalbaf family, Majid Majidi, Jafar Panahi, Bahman Ghobadi and more besides having received theatrical and television showings not to mention plenty of DVDs. Thanks to these we’ve been able to build up an understanding for the country’s arthouse output, to gain a feeling for its unique properties. Pitts’ cinema conforms in some respects, but not in others.
The three film which comprise The Rafi Pitts Collection are as follows: his second feature Sanam from 2000, here making its UK DVD debut; 2006’s It’s Winter, which also the first of Pitts’ features to earn UK distribution; and his most recent effort - excluding his contribution to the international anthology film 60 Seconds of Solitude in Year Zero - The Hunter from 2010. (All three films can also be purchased individually.) In each Pitts opts for the naturalistic approach, shooting solely on location and utilising a non-professional cast, which perfectly serves his small-scale storytelling. His films play out like ballads or parables: tightly composed little tales with few characters and fewer digressions.
Sanam opens with a young boy witnessing his father’s death. Or perhaps that should be assassinated. He is shot following accusations of being a horse thief leaving behind a wife and child to work the family farm and get very little from the authorities in the way of an official investigation. Tellingly, the killing plays off in the distance as though Pitts is refusing anything remotely ‘thrilling’ to enter his picture. Instead the focus is on the after effects: how mother and child cope and how societal demands and expectations ensure that they cope in the acceptable manner. Equally low-key is It’s Winter (which Noel has reviewed in full here), another tale of ordinary people bound by expectations. It relates the stories of two men in search of work. One is laid off from his job and decides to leave his family to find employment abroad. The other is a new arrival in Tehran, albeit with no ties and as such a different attitude to life. He soon befriends the wife who has been left behind, ultimately finding those attitudes tested.
The Hunter returns to the themes of grief found in Sanam. Pitts himself plays a man whose wife is killed in the crossfire during a shootout between the police and protestors. Their six-year-old daughter was with her at the time yet the authorities do not know where she is, nor do they seem quite so concerned as he would hope. Venting his frustration he kills two policemen in broad daylight and goes on the run. Unlike the previous features, here Pitts does opt for genre thrills - there’s a particularly striking car chase in the fog - yet they more greatly resemble the stripped-back, existential nature of 1970s ‘New Hollywood’ equivalents.
Such a comparison arguably highlights something of that different feel and look Pitts brings to his ventures. The naturalistic (and neo-realism influenced) style is prevalent in arthouse Iranian cinema, whilst the young boy in Sanam suggests, initially, that it will be another child-centric effort to rank alongside the likes of The White Balloon and Where is My Friend’s House?. However, it is often the non-Iranian reference points which sit more easily. Indeed, Sanam also brings to mind seventies US cinema, especially that decade’s revisionist westerns. Meanwhile, the industrial heart of Tehran which figures so prominently in It’s Winter has the air of a seventies paranoid thriller, perhaps even that of a particularly bleak science fiction. (Think of Fassbinder’s World on a Wire or the way in which Godard utilised present day Paris for Alphaville.) The car parks full of identical vehicles and the cold blue-white palette have the requisite effect - and it’s one far removed from the worlds of Kiarostami or Panahi.
Not that such aspects in anyway diminish Pitts’ intended effects. His films are always highly politicised and the anger in them is immediately discernible. Furthermore it’s an anger which feels very specific to Iran and the lives of its people. Yet that partial outsider status he is afforded thanks to his time in France and the UK, both as citizen and filmmaker, also lend the situations a slightly westernised eye. It’s a unique perspective, one that separates Pitts from his contemporaries as well as bringing his films closer to audiences such as ourselves.
The three discs which make up The Rafi Pitts Collection are identical to their individual releases. Each presents its film in its original aspect ratio (anamorphically enhanced), with original Persian soundtrack (in either DD2.0 or DD5.1 form) and with optional English subtitles. Given the age of these titles - the oldest having been released in 2000 - all three look expectedly excellent. Prints are clean and free from damage or wear, whilst detail is strong and the distinctive cinematography of each is seemingly adhered to. Soundtracks are similarly crisp and fault-free. Excellent presentations all round.
Extras differ from disc to disc, with Sanam offering none but It’s Winter and The Hunter both providing excellent, in-depth interviews with Pitts. The one on It’s Winter, in particular, is highly impressive thanks to its 40-minute-plus running time and the director’s eloquent, considered discussion of his work and the situations in Iran for both filmmakers and everyday citizens. Trailers are also present for the latter two titles, but it’s the interviews which are key - indeed, they make up for Sanam’s complete lack of any additional material. (Pitts is interviewed in English in both cases.)
Sanam, It's Winter and The Hunter in one handy package.