(18/01/07) – For the majority of British cinemagoers the name of Rafi Pitts may invoke little more than a confused shrug of the shoulders. And while his name may appear new to most audiences, Pitts has been in the business of making movies for a whole decade.

Having left a war-stricken Iran at the age of 12, Pitts moved back and forth between Paris, London and Russia (where he also made a medium-length film) before going back to Iran to shoot his first feature, 1997’s The Fifth Season. However, like his second film, 1999’s Sanam, not many outside his native Iran had the opportunity to see it.

It’s Winter, his third and most recent film released last December in the UK, enjoyed a widely positive reception from both critics and audiences alike. And while reduced to a limited arthouse release, British viewers finally had a chance to discover Pitts’ desolate and impoverished Iran. The film is a poetic portrait of modern day rural Iran, is a welcome slice of cinematic neo-realism in a pre-Oscar, Hollywood-infested season where big and expensive are the order of the day.

Kamera caught up with Pitts during his brief stay in London promoting the film. Approachable and engaging, Pitts talked cinema, his influences, the ideas behind It’s Winter and his future plans.

Has the positive reception to It’s Winter surprised you in any way?

It’s always fascinating to be met with a positive response, because when I originally made the film I wasn’t thinking in terms of having an outside world see it. The story concerns us Iranians a great deal, so you can never know what someone else will feel. The realisation that the feeling you are trying to express has no borders is probably the most satisfying experience you can feel.

How do you feel about the current perception of Iranian cinema outside Iran?

What I find fascinating is that what is often called Iranian cinema outside of the country is only a fraction of our actual cinema, as we also have commercial cinema, formalist cinema and neorealist cinema. Neorealist cinema is more prominent outside Iran as it gives people a glimpse of what it’s like to be there. Having said that, none of the neorealist filmmakers resemble each other in any way. For example, Kiarostami approaches his films by showing us the reality of a person and the story will stem from there. I, on the other hand, have a story and look for real emotion from there.

You’ve spent a significant part of your life outside Iran, having returned to it in 1997 to shoot your first feature. Do you think this has affected your perception of your country in any way?

The reason I went back in 1997 is because I feel any filmmaker has to be themselves if they wants their feelings to come through in their films. In my first film all of the characters were played by people I grew up with, even the cinematographer was my friend. I’ve never thought of cinema as national in any way. For me filmmaking is about points of view. Cultural backgrounds are fascinating but not the key. I also don’t think at any point in the history of cinema has there been a film which someone could say represents a certain country. It only represents the point of view of a filmmaker that happened to be in a certain place at a certain time.

A common thread in your films is the presence of non-professional actors. What do you think they bring to your films that you couldn’t get from someone professionally trained?

I never consciously search for a non-professional. I always look for the person, the character. The actors in my country live in a different world to the characters from my films, they don’t have the same problems and they can’t relate to them. Besides, you could say these people have acted all of their lives just to survive. There are moments when they are being themselves, others where they are acting out a scene. The scene, for example, where Marhab meets the girl, an otherwise well known commercial actress in Iran, is real and honest because they hadn’t met before the shoot. In a way, they all somehow play parts of themselves in the film.

In It’s Winter, everything is shot on location. Did you feel the presence of a camera was a barrier between you the people you were filming and working with?

For me that’s the most difficult part of my job. The scene I just told you about was one of the hardest to film. The only way for the "actor" to snap out of location was to not allow him to meet the actress before the shoot. The night before the shoot, he knew she was in the hotel but wasn’t allowed to meet her. Once that scene was shot, he was all over her as any normal human being meeting a famous actress would be. In this case, the moment would have been lost had they met before and there would have been no way for me to get him to act out the scene again.

Is it difficult making films in Iran nowadays?

It’s not easy to make films anywhere. In Iran, for example, you have artistic freedom but then there is censorship. Abroad, I get a feeling there is economical censorship and therefore artistic freedom is limited. So it ends up being the same, just different pressures. Any filmmaker is always struggling to say what he wants to say within the boundaries given to him by the system he’s in.

Do you think films like yours raise certain social issues in Iran as well as they do outside of it?

That’s what I hope. I want my films to be seen in Iran so I work within the bounds of censorship. The reason I chose a commercially well-known actress as the lead was to attract the working class and show them their life, their reality. That said, I don’t think filmmaking should be made for a particular group or circle only.

Is there a director that has particularly influenced you and whom you keep going back to?

Cassavettes, definitely.

What are you currently working on? Are there any plans or ideas you could reveal?

I’m still writing, I can’t say anything definite. The only thing I’m sure of is that the character is someone who doesn’t fit in a box because they’re the ones that interest me the most and because we live in a world where marginal people are being allowed to exists less and less.