26 April 2008

It’s winter (Zemestan)
It's winter -- DVD cover
directed by Rafi Pitts
Iran, 2006
78 minutes / Farsi with English subtitles

The term ‘poetic’ is thrown about a great deal by writers describing the films of various directors – sometimes it’s appropriate…other times not so much. In the case of It’s winter, it’s perfectly apt. In terms of the written and spoken word, poetry opens up the power of language – its rhythms enter the heart and soul of the reader / listener, opening doors that are harder for prose to access. It’s almost a shamanic process – which is no doubt why practitioners of such ancient arts utilized verse for their stories, songs and spells. The gates of the mind swing wide for poetry – frontiers are more easily crossed or erased completely. In terms of cinema, I suppose it’s the rhythmic and metaphoric aspects of poetry that apply – without beating the viewer over the head by a simple ‘visual recitation’ of a story or plot, the poetic filmmaker utilizes more subtle methods. Images are more languid – time is uncompressed (at least in comparison to most films made today) – everything about a character or storyline isn’t laid out as if on a dining table for the viewer to consume like fast food…absorption and consideration are required.

Rafi Pitts has based It’s winter on ‘Safar’, a story by famed Iranian writer Mahmoud Dowlatabadi which, according to Pitts, is well-known to most Iranians [Dowlatabadi also wrote the story on which the 1969 film Gaav (The cow) was based]. The characters are working class men and women – their lives are unglamorous struggles to survive in a harsh world. As the film opens, Mokhtar (Ashem Abdi), husband to Khatoun (Mitra Hadjar) and father to a little girl (Zahra Jafari) announces to them that he has lost his job and sees no other alternative in supporting them than to travel abroad to find work. He leaves his family, including his mother-in-law (Safari Ghassemi) to survive on the meager wages earned by Khatoun, who works in near sweat-shop conditions as a seamstress. Their existence is a bleak one, but they have no choice but to struggle to survive.
It's winter -- 003
It's winter -- 004
Arriving in town around this same time is Marhab (Ali Nicksaulat), a drifter in search of work – he presents himself as a mechanic who specializes in repairing cranes. He meets Ali Reza (Saeed Orkani), who befriends the newcomer and secures employment for him at his workplace. Their friendship has its ups and downs – Marhab is argumentative at times, and alternates between throwing himself into his work and lazing about the job drinking tea and smoking cigarettes. In his travels about the city, Marhab notices the beautiful Khatoun and takes an immediate interest in her. Customs being what they are, he cannot approach her openly or too closely, so he observes her at a distance – he even finds out where she lives and watches her house. Word comes to him that she is married, and that her husband has gone abroad to find work, although there has been no word of him for several months, and the family hasn’t received any money from him. One day Marhab sees a policeman walk up to Khatoun’s house, seemingly to deliver a message – immediately following the exchange with the occupants, wailing can be heard from within. Marhab guesses that the news is about Khatoun’s husband, and that fate has delivered him a chance to pursue her more directly.
It's winter -- 009
At first his attempts at contact are rebuffed – first by the grandmother when he delivers a gift for the little girl, then by Khatoun when she confronts him more directly than he had anticipated: ‘Why are you following me?’ This exchange between the two characters is perfectly captured in all its nuances by the director’s patience and technique. In the interview included on the DVD, he explains that he wanted to show the shyness that would inevitably be expressed by Marhab in real life. Mitra Hadjar, who portrays Khatoun, is the only professional actor in the film, and is a well-known star in Iran – all of the other characters are played by non-actors recruited by Pitts during his pre-production period of actually living in the neighborhood where It’s winter was to be filmed. Before shooting this scene, Pitts purposefully kept the two principals apart – they met for the first time as the viewer witnesses. The embarrassment and shyness of a working class non-actor doing a scene with one of the best-known female film starts of his country is real – and it’s just what the scene needs to come across as uncontrived.

Khatoun slowly warms to Marhab’s attentions – his gift to the family of a well-made rug seems to cement the relationship. This seeming turn in his fortunes is followed shortly by a civil ceremony wedding, and he moves in. A scene shot from a distance on the street, showing Marhab and Khatoun meeting and sharing a walking meal, is touching in its silent tenderness. Without any physical contact between the two of them (forbidden under Iranian censorship regulations), the openness of their expressions and the ease with which they interact conveys volumes – and, being filmed sometime after the two actually met, the shyness of the earlier scene is completely washed away.
It's winter -- 006
Marhab’s undependability and contrariness eventually get him into trouble at work. His boss, who has a reputation for not paying his workers on time, if at all, grows weary of Marhab’s complaining and insolence and fires him. Now the drifter, who seemed to be on the track to settling down with a job and a family, finds himself in the same fix as Mokhtar.

One non-visual aspect of the production that bears mentioning is the use of a poem by Mehdi Akhavan-Sales (1928-1990), ‘Winter’, from 1956. The poet is one of the most beloved in Iran, and the poem was one of the director’s inspirations (along with the Dowlatabadi story) for the story and mood of the film. It is presented in song form by Mohammad Reza Shajarian (vocals) and Hossein Alizadeh (tar), in segments throughout the film, to wonderful effect. Shajarian and Alizadeh are incredible musicians, and are members of the all-star group Masters of Persian Music (some of whom also play in the ensemble Ghazal). Alizadeh has composed music for other films as well, including Turtles can fly (2004) and A time for drunken horses (2000). The poem is filled with haunting images of both the physical and emotional aspects of winter – it blends with the visual imagery of the film strikingly.

The cinematography is nothing short of stunning – but not for any panoramic shots of wide spaces, flashy colors or special effects. Pitts has worked wonders here, with help from director of photography Mohammad Davoodi (perhaps best known to western filmgoers for his beautiful work on 2001's Baran). I’m sure there were lights used in filming, but the results are such that each and every scene appears to be shot in natural light – both the indoor and outdoor scenes are replete with subtle shadings such as one might find in painted masterpieces. The dialogue is uncluttered, completely unforced and naturally delivered – the performances Pitts has coaxed from his non-professional cast are first-rate, and add immeasurably to the effectiveness of the film. The story is told gently and slowly, without hurry – it unfolds as if it were occurring in the real world before our eyes. There are nuances to each character that become apparent only as we get to know and understand them – no one is painted in black and white as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ (and Pitts has some interesting comments about this in the interview as well), just as the world around us is populated by people who are more ‘shades of grey’ than in sharp, easily definable terms. The result is one of the finest examples of cinema I’ve seen in years – I look forward to future efforts from this director.

Unfortunately, It’s winter has yet to see a US release on DVD. It’s been shown at some festivals here and there, and I’m sure in the ‘usual suspect’ art-house theatres in come cities, but I don’t think it’s likely to enjoy a wider release. That’s a shame – this is a truly great film, one that deserves to be seen by a much wider audience…but perhaps not by viewers who grow impatient if there’s a lack of ‘action’.

One more reason I’m glad I have a region-free DVD player.