Saturday, 14 February 2015

Ancient Stories: It’s Winter (Rafi Pitts, 2006)

 (written for the Spring 2008 issue of Vertigo magazine - Volume 3, number 8)

What do you mean, the night is gone?
That dawn is announcing the day?
What you see in the sky
is not the redness after dawn,
no, what you see is no daybreak.
It’s the mark of winter’s slap
on the sky’s face.

It’s Winter begins with one man’s look that sends another on his way to unpaid uncertainty and sets the film’s events in motion. It is a look that understands the hardship that will follow, accepts the regret and the sorrow, and knows there is no other way forward. His eyes have pooled with unshed tears but are resolute. He finishes his cigarette, gets up and padlocks his warehouse doors; the man whose work he has refused walks home through the market arcade, then through the blue-grey light of the snow to his house by the railway track.

This is a modern folk tale but its stories are ancient, destined to be endlessly repeated. One man loses his job and leaves the city to look for work to support his family; another man arrives in the city looking for work. The first man’s wife continues working, supports her child, struggles to get by. The second man sees her and desires her. Many months pass with no news, and then bad news about her husband.

It is an old choice: between the promise of going away to look for work and staying at home to try to support the family, doing the rounds, finding work but not getting paid, showing ingenuity, willing and initiative, and all to no end. It is an old choice; only the sounds of the transport have changed.

For this story of unemployment among people on the margins of settled existence, director Rafi Pitts adaptated Mahmoud Dowlatabadi’s story Safar (The Trip), setting it in a down at heel working district in modern-day Tehran. All the actors but one are non-professional and were drawn from the locality in which he filmed. Throughout, Mehdi Akhavan-Saless’s 1956 poem, Winter, the words of which are used throughout this review, are sung by Mohammed Reza Shajarian to an oud’s doleful accompaniment.

Should you extend a friendly hand
they won’t stretch one back
for the cold is too bitter, too harsh.

The breath coming out of your chest
turns into a dark cloud
that stands before your eyes like a wall.
When your own breath is like this,
what can you expect from distant or close friends?

Following these words, a train pulls into the station and vents steam into the freezing evening air, steam that veils a man’s goodbye to his child. The train will come in many times more and take many more away. Others will arrive by road and take their place. The station’s magpie has seen it all, and its busy chatter sends each new departure on his way.

This is pared-down cinema that deals only in the essentials of work and companionship. It understands how economic hardship alters the way people regard each other, understands the separation between people that arrives with poverty. A young girl watches a man readying to leave her house in the same corner that her father did before him. The film is filled with people looking at each other, wondering if they will go, stay, return; wondering whether to allow themselves to trust once again, having been betrayed before and knowing that they must. Throughout, the movement of looking for work, the miles of walking, is set against these still points of wondering faces. The camera work too is unadorned. Characters are centred in the frame, or they are walking through it and out of it. Buildings are places of transience. A roadside boarding house, a bathroom, a café, workplaces, houses even. They are indifferent to their inhabitants, knowing that they will move on.

Though the film is attuned to the cadences of melancholy, the use of the poem, the words of which thread their way through the people’s stories, means that it is neither despairing, nor hopeless. It alters the scale of events, places them within a larger cycle. For if this story comes from the middle of winter, both actual and metaphorical, then other seasons will follow in their turn and bring a time of reconciliation and greeting, bounty, celebration and praise. For now though, the voice and the notes of the oud are earthbound, and travel only as far as the muffling of winter snow will allow.

Air is gloomy, doors are closed
heads ducked into collars.
Hands hidden,
breaths are clouds,
people worn out, heavyhearted,
the trees, nothing but crystal skeletons.

The earth dispirited,
the high dome of sky has sunken,
the moon and the sun are overcast.
It’s winter.
It’s winter.

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