Every morning, when I turn on the radio and hear of yet another wave of revolutionary uprisings or demonstrations in the Middle East and North Africa, I invariably think that such events are long overdue. But what causes a popular uprising? What makes such a thing overdue?
In the West, we have an ageing and apathetic population ruled over by a largely corrupt political class who have little or no interest in rocking the boat. However, though archly conservative and hugely selfish, the mindset of the political classes broadly mirrors the attitudes of the ageing population they claim to represent and so, despite the odd march and protest, a revolution is not likely to take place any time soon. However, in the Arab World, the picture is startlingly different.
In the Middle East and North Africa, a similarly corrupt, conservative and selfish political class is currently in power. However, unlike the West, the population of the Arab World is not conservative and apathetic but young, vibrant and idealistic. For a while now, the older political class has managed to keep the young in line by making lavish promises and allowing them to blow off steam by whipping up anti-US and anti-Israeli sentiment (despite their vocal outrage, Israeli atrocities have been a political godsend to the autocracies of the Arab world). When these fail to work, the ageing political classes use Western weapons and truncheons to put down the protestors while screaming about ‘foreign influence’. However, as the news reveals to us every morning, this tactic is rapidly starting to fail and the youth of the Arab World are starting to demand representation in the political classes of the countries they inhabit.
What makes this wave of uprisings feel overdue is the fact that they are largely the product of demographic weight. The political algebra is quite clear:
Insufficient social and political mobility + high birth rate = revolution
But where does the truth of this equation come from? Where do revolutions start? Iranian director Rafi Pitts’ The Hunter suggests that, while revolutions begin with unhappy people, they seldom end that way as political issues have a tendency to outlive the people who first draw attention to them.
Now working as a night watchman in a vast factory, Ali (Pitts) is a former criminal who managed to find some degree of redemption and consolation in the act of becoming a father. However, because he is a former criminal, he is not allowed to work during the day and so he spends his life isolated from the wife and child who saved him from a life of crime. Miserable and alienated from everything he loves, Ali works out his violent impulses by hunting in the hills north of Tehran. However, one day he returns home from work and discovers his wife and child are missing. He waits all day. He waits all night. When they do not come home, Ali begins to worry and sets about trying to track them down. After being kept waiting for hours, the police decide to start questioning him about his wife’s political activities and it becomes clear that she has died in some shoot-out between the police and some protesters. Ali’s wife has died and they treat him like a criminal. When Ali asks after his daughter, the police tell him they have no information to give him and kick him out onto the street where he eventually (after much waiting) discovers that his daughter also died in the shootout.
Pitts presents Iranian society as a vast industrial machine full of hissing steam pipes and populated by people who travel to work using clogged motorways and dank concrete corridors. The sense of systemic pressure is unmistakable and it seems perfectly reasonable for Ali to want to escape to the woods in order to let off his own steam.
However, when Ali is confronted by the death of his wife and child and a state system that is not only completely unapologetic but almost accusatory in its attitude to a grieving father, Ali loses the plot. Ali’s private spaces are dominated by the colour green: green forests, green walls, green car and even a green milk dish for his cat. This choice of colour both emphasises the disconnect between the organic individual (Ali) and the artificial built environment (the state system) and alludes to the green flags and headscarves worn during the uprisings and demonstrations of 2009 and 2010. Ali is a man facing a personal crisis but because the crisis is caused by the actions of the state, his crisis is political, as is his act of revolt.
Pausing only to drop his cat off with his mother-in-law, Ali takes to the hills and shoulders his rifle in order to gun down a pair of cops as they drive along the motorway. The iconography of the scene is carefully chosen: Ali stands in the verdant hills and fires his rifle at a machine navigating the motorways of the Iranian state. By its inhumanity, the state has forced Ali out of its sphere on influence.
Pursued and then captured by a pair of bickering cops, Ali sits mutely expecting the worst but when it turns out that the group have managed to get lost in the hills, the two cops begin to turn on one another and argue over whether or not they should simply shoot Ali in the head. The older cop says he has the right to shoot the man, the younger cop says that he should get a trial and, as the rain pours down and the pair’s irritation decays first into resentment and then into hatred, the younger cop decides to free Ali in return for his promising to kill the older cop.
The final act of The Hunter is initially quite confusing. It is confusing partly because it is intensely verbal in a way that the rest of the film is not (Pitts is all about the long silence, the brooding negative space around his characters and perfectly composed beautifully atmospheric landscape shots) and partly because it seems to make little sense. But this is, one feels, quite intentional. Forced out of their urban element and made to confront a man who has been forced out of the system by the system’s inhumanity, the cops begin to lose their bearings as the interests of the state start to merge in their mind with the interests of justice and the Oresteian need for vengeance. The fact that the film ends with the police trying to kill each other while Ali attempts to escape while himself dressed as a cop suggests that revolution is infectious as the cops shrug off the interests of the state almost as soon as they set foot in the forest. Seen from this perspective, Ali is a transformative figure, a revolutionary Typhoid Mary whose grief and anger are intense enough to be infectious. The film ends with the situation well and truly muddied; the revolutionary snowball has not only grown, it continues to move downhill and as the cordon tightens and other cops pile into the forest, it is not difficult to imagine Ali’s grief and anger infecting them too.
Stepping back from the film’s foreground politics, one of the more interesting aspects of The Hunter is its reputation with America and American cinema in particular. Indeed, the film opens with a still of a bunch of angry Iranians driving their motorbikes over an enormous American flag. The iconography is exquisitely ambivalent as, on the one hand, the image can be read as a bunch of angry Iranians trampling an American flag but, on the other hand, the image can also be read as an ode to Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969) and its ambivalent and/or ironic attitude towards the trappings of American culture. In Easy Rider, the ultimate rebel wears an American flag and goes by the name of ‘Captain America’ but his murderers also wear the American flag. The American counter-cultural ambivalence towards the flag (is it something to be reviled or reclaimed?) is here transposed into contemporary Iranian culture: Is America the great Islamic Satan, a symbol of Western economic repression or a symbol of hope? The American flag holds such a place in post-revolutionary Iranian popular consciousness that it seems to elude easy characterisation.
However, The Hunter’s debt to American cinema does not end with Easy Rider as the combination of politics and modernist industrial vistas harkens back to the golden age of American political thrillers such as John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Alan J. Pakula’s paranoia trilogy including Klute (1971), The Parallax View (1974) and All the President’s Men (1976) as well as Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974). The fact that Hollywood’s golden age of political paranoia seemed to coincide with Iran’s Islamic Revolution only further intensifies the provocative power of Pitts’ imgery. In the 1970s, it was the American state that seemed to be teetering on the edge of the abyss but now, more than thirty years later, the same can be said of the Iranian state and that instability is depicted with the same images and in the same style.
The complexity of Iran’s relationship with America along with the highly-evolved and fiercely politicised nature of Pitts’ invocation of American cultural iconography means that it is difficult to impose a clear allegorical meaning on The Hunter but it does suggest that Pitts is engaging in an act of cultural destabilisation; hatred of America is at the heart of how the Iranian government sees itself and, by reclaiming American film and American cultural iconography from within the context of a home-grown Iranian film, Pitts is seeking to challenge the way that Iranian culture presents itself and, by extension, the state Iranian state.