“The Runner” - Amir Naderi (1984)

Amir Naderi’s filmmaking career, like those of a number of his still-active Iranian contemporaries [1], has stretched over a long period, encompassing pre-revolutionary and post-revolutionary Iran and probably requiring significant adaptations to various imposed constraints on the film industry.  I would assume that a particularly difficult time for filmmakers would have been the first decade after the revolution, but that was when Naderi made his most famous and acclaimed film, The Runner (Davandeh, 1984).  This film shows the world of a young orphan boy named Amiro who has to scrounge for his living along the waterfront of an Iranian seaport (presumably Abadan).  But instead of focusing on the mundane specifics of the boy’s daily life, the film concentrates on the boy’s inner, emotional ups and downs.  And this is what gives the film near-universal appeal.

There are several aspects of the film that make it unique.  For one thing – and this is a weakness, – there is not much of an overall narrative to the film, but it still manages to hold your interest.  Instead of a clear-cut plotline, the film consists of a sequence of disparate episodes strung together almost randomly (although there is a general thematic progression that I will describe below).  In some sense the film is almost more like an essay than a typical story.  One might say, however, that this essay quality is the film’s basic virtue: The Runner, analogously to a musical tone poem, is really a visual (cinematic) poem that conveys a mood (and a stance), rather than a story.

Italian neorealist cinema is said to be an influence on Naderi, and The Runner has been mentioned as an example of that genre [2].  But this should not lead one to believe that this film is a fly-on-the-wall documentary of recorded reality.  The scenes in this film have been carefully staged by Naderi and his cinematographer, Firooz Malekzadeh, with superb moving-camera and panning shots, often with long-lens and short depth-of-field imagery, kept gracefully in frame.  Similarly, the dynamic editing of the action scenes is very well done and must have required significant planning.  Another key production feature of the film is the ambient sound, which usefully adds to the contextual atmosphere and gives a sense of presence to what is being shown.  All of this cinematic choreography puts the viewer into the flow of Amiro’s life – so effectively, in fact, that the viewer can basically understand the entire film without reference to the dialogue or subtitles. 

Further amplifying the affective scenery are several emphatic visual metaphors that are repetitively used throughout. 
  • Airplanes and ships – these may suggest liberation and new horizons.
  • Ice and heat – the ice evokes feelings of desperately desired relief from sweltering heat.
  • Running – it evokes the pure joie de vivre of being an autonomous living being.

However, these metaphors are visual for a reason, and they have a suggestive power beyond any textual articulation.

As I mentioned, the story of The Runner is more like a meditation involving impressionistic imagery and has almost the character of an imagined account or a romanticized reminiscence [3].  Nevertheless the film does progress through a few stages.

1.  Scavenging and Collecting Bottles
The opening shots show a boy of bout 11 or 12 years of age, Amiro (played with passion by Majid Niroumand), excitedly shouting at a plane that he sees taking off.  He seems to be celebrating the plane’s ability to fly to  new, exciting worlds. Then the scene shifts to a vast garbage dump, where Amiro, along with other impoverished people, scrounges for salvageable refuse.  Here it’s every man for himself, and people are shown fighting over the meager items that they pick up.  This is the only scene in the film, by the way, showing women (fully covered, of course, and with their faces not visible).

Afterwards, Amiro’s best friend convinces him that it is more profitable for Amiro to join him and other boys in collecting discarded bottles from the sea.  The boys get paid a small pittance by turning the bottles over to junk dealers.  Amiro joins them, but again it’s highly competitive, and he gets bullied out of some of his recovered loot by bigger boys.  After some time, though, Amiro gains acceptance from the existing group of bottle scroungers, and they even invite him to go bicycling with them.

The viewer is eventually shown Amiro’s home life – he lives alone on an beached and abandoned ship and has to look after himself.  He is evidently an orphan.  One of Amiro’s passions apparently is airplanes, and he spends all of his spare money buying magazines that have airplane pictures from a kiosk on the waterfront. 

One day while continuing his work collecting bottles out in the sea, there is a shark warning.  With this scary event Amiro realizes that his other passion, running, would be ruined if a shark were to attack his legs.  So he starts looking for another way of making money.

2.  Ice
Amiro is later shown having found his new occupation: selling ice water for one rial per drink at a plaza along the waterfront.  But, of course, there is still time left over for his passion to engage in footraces with his old friends.  One of their pastimes is to chase freight trains, and they do it exhaustively.  There is no sense of fair play in these events, by the way, as all the competing boys try to push and trip each other as they race along the tracks. 

There are other, more serious, races, too.  On one occasion Amiro spends a long time running after a delinquent customer on a bicycle who failed to pay for his drink.  After a marathon-like run, Amiro catches up with him and collects his rial.  On another occasion, after buying a needed ice block for his work, he is chased by a bigger boy who had temporarily stolen his ice block.  Here again his fleetness afoot wins the day.

3.  Shining Shoes
Later Amiro has found a new and better way of making money: shining the shoes of café customers who frequent the waterfront plaza.  Here he has to avoid being bullied by the plaza café waiters, and he winds up having another altercation with a customer that leads to another marathon race for Amiro. 

He does make enough money to buy more airplane magazines, but now it finally dawns on him that he is illiterate and should learn how to read.  He registers for a literacy class, and with the same determination that has characterized his other activities, he resolutely sets out to learn the Farsi alphabet and become literate.

4.  Coda – the Ultimate Race
The film’s final seven minutes show, in elaborate cinematic detail, another brutally competitive race involving Amiro and his friends.  This one is held near the shoreline petroleum waste fires, and the boys are racing to see who can be the first to reach an ice block that has been set at the finish line.  This sequence, featuring dreamlike slow-motion footage, shows the boys furiously racing in the oppressive heat to reach that metaphorical treasure at the end.  Amiro, who had finished second in the previous train-chasing race, finally emerges triumphant in this one.  At the end, all the boys exult in their exhaustive, but somehow mutually celebratory, effort.
Throughout The Runner the viewer has seen Amiro’s materialistically meager and limited existence portrayed as relentless struggle on the part of a boy who relishes what he can do – run fast.  For Amiro, life itself is represented in the sheer joy of running.  He loves all of it: the effort, the competition, even the combat.  For him, it is the closest he can come to his dream: flying.  Amiro never gives up, and the viewer has confidence that Amiro will ultimately learn to read, too. That will give him more chances to run and fly.

  1. For example: Abbas Kiarostami, Masoud Kimiai, Dariush Mehrjui, and  Ali Rafie.
  2. See: Jugu Abraham, “32. Iranian Director Amir Naderi's 'Davandeh' (The Runner) (1985): a Gem of Neo-realist Cinema”, Movies That Make You Think, (12 March 2007).
  3. The idea of a concocted set of reminiscences is supported by the fact that Amiro’s hair seems to vary in length over various portions of the film.

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