If you want to know what life is like under one of the Middle Eastern countries where people are taking to the streets in protests about their authoritarian governments, The Hunter might be a good place to start. Like the film’s brooding electronic soundtrack, it pulses with alienated sorrow and fury.
Some background to the making of the film might make things clearer. Filming was started during the controversial and contested 2009 presidential elections and finished just two days before the riots kicked off. Although not particularly fast paced, this film might be seen to embody the dissatisfactions of ordinary Iranians with their regime.
Made by Paris-based Iranian director Rafi Pitts, The Hunter is a film of two parts. Initially, it follows the life of Ali (played by Pitts himself), who lives a life of quiet desperation in Tehran, the action is then transplanted to desolate woods outside the city.
Although living with his wife and daughter, Ali is kept from them by his night time job in a factory. He is consigned to this job by the authorities as he has spent time in prison, for some unspecified offence. As Mark E Smith of The Fall sang of shift work in his song of the same name, “You cracked my mind, You just split us apart. Shiftwork” Somehow, Ali’s family life is the one sweet spot in his life, but his mind may be cracked.
He seeks relief hunting in the woods with a rifle, although these forests are not warm, sun dappled or even very green. Life turns from frustration and boredom to a thick, engulfing grief when his wife and daughter go missing. Their arbitrary fates combine with bureaucratic indifference and ineffectiveness to transform a sad man to an angry one.
The hunter tries to hit back at the system that he feels has wronged him and somehow ends up back in the woods where he feels most at home. The police are on his trail, but they are idiots, either corrupt or as disenfranchised as the Ali himself. In the woods, it is not certain who is hunter or who is the victim.
For the last fifteen or so years Iranian cinema has been highly acclaimed across the world. In 1999 the great American critic Susan Sontag wrote “Iranian cinema has been the great revelation of the last decade”, and things haven’t looked back since. The films coming out of the country are generally acclaimed for their acute focus on human experience and blurring of the boundaries between the real and fiction. The Hunter incorporates sounds recorded from the radio and on the streets of Tehran and tries to provide a microscopic insight into one man’s situation.
At least the film tries to give an insight into Ali the hunter, although Pitts gives a rather one dimensionally dour character. He revealed on BBC Radio 4’s The Film Programme that he originally had another actor in mind for the principal role, but the actor dropped out due to personal problems. As film-making in Iran is very much a matter of getting permission, signed letters authorising each member of the crew, Pitts thought it better to stand in himself rather than go through elaborate bureaucratic hoop-jumping to get a new lead. Luckily the film does not require much more than moody dissatisfaction.
A representative from the Iranian Ministry for Censorship was present on set throughout filming. That he did not find any problem with the film says something about the ambiguity of the Ali character – he’s no straight victim of a wicked regime. The Ministry man would also have been pleased to see such a well composed film, whether of urban landscapes, misty forests or desolate grey seas. Pitts believes that the film would have had a bigger problem with the movie if the man had known anti-government riots would break out two days after filming was complete. Riots that showed quite how furious the Iranian people, like the hunter, are.