The Runner is a film of elemental mystery contained by the absence of psychology. In this early eighties Iranian film by the much respected but too little known Amir Naderi, the director offers a work that sustains and even increases its fascination as its eschews the socio-psychological information about the central character's life that would explain but not retain that mystery. One of the bedevilments of narrative cinema, of character-driven film, is that its purpose is to dilute the mystery it generates in explanation. When we talk of the narrative threads being tied up, we are talking about the way motivation is explained, the mystery revealed and the story concluded.
But Naderi wants to keep pushing the mysterious, he wants to keep adding to the mystery of existence over explaining the motivations behind his character's life. As he films a series of events in a young boy's existence, he does so either laterally or reactively - as if adding to the degree to which the boy is an element in the world, rather than a character whose etat civil, his social status as an orphan in Iran, is the priority. We use the term laterally, for though the film moves forward as we see the young boy taking on various jobs including selling bottles and later ice, and shows him trying to get into day school and later taking night classes, the progression the film moves towards is elementally disparate rather than psychologically unifying. If the film were interested chiefly in his social and psychological development many of the scenes would be close to irrelevant, but as it searches out the boy as an element in nature these lateral ones define the film more readily than the chronologically driven scenes that show a clear temporal progression. When just before the end of the film Naderi cuts between scenes of the boy in training for a competition with the other boys the following day, to the waves crashing against the rocks, to the boy standing close to a train as it passes, the film dissolves the forward progression into lateral elementalism (a dissolution he would push even further in his following film, Water, Wind, Dust).
But we've also mentioned the reactive - the degree to which the titular character reacts to events. When we look at the first ten minutes of the film we notice how often the eponymous character reacts to situations around him. The opening shot shows a pensive boy suddenly breaking into a loud and insistent yell as we muse over what it might be that he is yelling at as he looks up to the sky and waves his jumper around. A minute later we might safely assume it was a passing plane, for the boy goes to an airstrip and looks at an aircraft: yet no plane seemed to be in the sky, and its presence wasn't suggested by off-screen sound. A minute later we see him reacting warmly to some goats, and a minute after that he is once again shouting into the air, once again with no plane in sight.
Thus there are two ways in which Naderi works against the psychological formally. Firstly, by offering lateral shots that are at least as important as the chronological, and secondly by utilising reaction shots that remain indeterminate, that lack strong causal links. What are we to make of another moment early in the film where the boy watches an older couple crossing and walking along the road, the wife apparently completely stricken with grief? Naderi cuts back and forth between the couple and the boy looking on, his own body in its heaving empathy possibly implying grief of his own. But it remains an ambiguous reaction and nothing more. It neither becomes action nor psychological reaction. In conventional dramatic terms this would be an easy opportunity for the boy to go and help the couple - the woman seems barely able to stand, and the husband barely able to prop her up - and also find out about their pain whilst also revealing his own. We would even have two sets of psychological revelations for the 'price of one'. But it is as though Naderi has instead asked not pragmatic questions concerning the story but, as we've proposed, pressing questions about how to escape orphan status. When Naderi talks of feeling in an interview in Eye on the World "as though I have a double culture, one that comes from the ocean and one that comes from land", it is almost as if he is offering some Oedipal conflict between a child drawn to one parent over the other. Certainly there is biographical information that could work as a back story for the film if we were looking for one - Naderi describes starting "life too soon - I learned how to earn money and survive fast" (Eye on the World), and the interviewer Judy Stone says "at eight he got a job folding paper into grocery bags..." However, while this might explain Naderi's life, to reduce the film to a by-product of his biography when he himself mentions the double culture of sea and sand would do a greater disservice to the work and the ideas behind it.
What we want to avoid doing is falling into psychological expectation on the one hand, and biographical information on the other. Neither approach will get us close to the singularity of Naderi's film, a singularity that in some ways resembles Gilles Deleuze's analysis of Michel Tournier's Friday. Here in The Logic of Sense Deleuze is interested less in the collapse of Robinson, than a new form of strength as man becomes at one with the world after all the divisions demanded of rational thought. Where for much of the book the isolated Robinson finds ways to stay sane, are these methods keeping him sane or keeping him from experiencing the world? Deleuze proposes that it is in his 'weakened' state that Robinson can experience this world; that he can, if you like, become the child of the land and of the sea. As Deleuze says "There is... a terrestrial fire, water, air and earth, but there is also an aerial or celestial earth, water, fire and air." How can Naderi 'elementize' the film; how can he suggest not the boy's life, but much more his elementary nature? If we were to fall into psychological expectation or rely on biographical information when talking of The Runner, we wouldn't quite be experiencing it; we would be drawing from the film our own rational expectations. Naderi seems a filmmaker more interested in 'irrational expectations', in asking the viewer to feel the film - not especially to interpret it - so that we can understand something of the boy's immersion in existence. By the conclusion, language is closer to an hallucinatory incantation than a rational narrative discourse.
This returns us to some of our initial points. We wondered whether narrative kills the mystery; that the mysterious is merely a narrative ploy at the service of the rational demand that, by the end of the film, all will be resolved. However, if Naderi were only interested in defying narrative expectation that would be all very well, but wouldn't be taking us very far: he would be an antithetical filmmaker, working against the Hollywood grain. But such a take would be to imply two things. One, that Hollywood is the dominant form other films must measure themselves against; the second, that the best the alternative filmmaker can do is question the monolith. But it seems Naderi wants to explore what it means to be a child earth and water, and such a question cannot readily be explored within the demands placed upon a filmmaker tied to narrative. To escape from telling a story is not quite the word; to find the means with which to explore what it is to be a child of the land and sea makes story relatively irrelevant. When we invoke Deleuze on Tournier's book it is because Tournier seems interested, like Naderi, in flipping over the anthropocentric focus of character in a landscape, to a landscape in a character - as individual being gets engulfed by existence.
If we take again the first couple of minutes of the film, what do we see and hear? The first sound we hear is that of sea gulls, followed by the boy shouting three times as we see him in medium close-up, and then three long shots of the beach before Naderi cuts back to another medium close up of the boy shouting again three times, as the film then cuts to a long shot of the boy from behind. As the camera tracks the boy along the beach before ending as the boy leaves the frame, Naderi opens on the land and the sea, and contains within this natural mystery a boy who may have mysteries of his own to which we are not privy. But if we insist that the mystery of the boy waving his towel around as though trying to capture somebody's attention is more important than the sand and the ocean that contains this gesture, the film will have failed in its reversal of perspectives: the sand and the sea will be backdrop, not nature fore-grounded. As Naderi constantly moves the character through an existence bigger than his own life, so we must feel nature working upon him, giving him the sort of contentment a more conventional drama will give by providing the boy with the resolution of his orphan status.
However, this is not to say the film has no interest in the boy's day to day existence; it is much more that the absence of back story, and the refusal to move towards a revelation of past in relation to the boy's presence, is what makes us see the boy's life as much more his own. He may finally be contained by nature, but he is nevertheless still a product of his own will. This is a boy who needs to work for basic sustenance, and at the same time is possessed of supplementary energy. Whether he is at work or at play, Naderi gives us the overwhelming sense of a character's kineticism: the degree to which he is a physicalelement in the world, evident most obviously in the film's very title. Often films that invoke the elemental, though, do so more passively than Naderi here. They indicate not the kinetic but the mineral, the vegetable, the plant-like. They create characters absorbed into the world rather than colliding with it. In Malick's The Thin Red Line, in Koreeda's Mabarosi and Tarkovsky's Nostalgia, the metaphysical relationship is one closer to resignation. It is a perspective that implies the absence of strife and that man's ultimate ontological achievement is to escape conflict. But Naderi, who is no less interested in the metaphysical, is more interested in a kinetic metaphysics where strife is both an immediate social reality and at the same time an ontological given. Hence all the boy's striving doesn't counter a broader reality, but is consistent with it.
We may notice this in the soundtrack that Naderi uses. Where a more metaphysically passive filmmaker would be interested in using the sounds of the wind and the sea, of cars and trains ambiently, Naderi uses them more discordantly. Where Abderrahmane Sissako in his great and tranquil Waiting for Happiness offers a sea that captures the passive, and Tarkovsky in Stalker a train that implies the meditative, in The Runner both serve the kinetic. As the boys pick up bottles in the sea, though the water is calm, the soundtrack captures the water's turbulence more than its tranquillity. Even moments of potentially quiet reflection are possessed of off-screen discordance, evident for example in the scene where the boy watches the teacher on the phone enquiring whether the boy is entitled to join the class. While the teacher speaks and the boy looks on, we hear in the background the noises of the playground - a hum of activity. Some may claim this is a product more of a muddy soundtrack than anything else, but it is so consistent with the aims of the film that it makes more sense to think of its thematic consistency than its technical weakness.
The soundtrack gives to the film then an elemental strife, an ontology of purposefulness that obviously runs contrary to Schopenhauer's belief that the misery in existence lies in the will; here the very nature of existence lies in wilfully engaging with the universe. Throughout the film the boy engages, fights with, competes against others and the world. This is an existentialism almost pre-psychological, where existence is brute force against brute force; not Sartre's viscosity of things, but more the solidity of things that we have to fight against for the purposes of survival.
But of course this is never a pathetic relationship with things - for how often do we see in films orphans fighting against the world in such a way that what matters is less the fight in-itself than the pathos generated out of feeling what the child is fighting against when familial love should be protecting him against it? But pathos has no place in Naderi's work, for the brutally existential is much more important than the pathetically familial. Hence in the scene where the boy insistently demands payment for the bottles he has picked out of the water, Naderi isn't interested in showing the boy hard done by, but much more the boy's hard-headedness as he says that he may have only gathered half as many bottles as the others, or rather that he only has half as many because others were stolen off him, but this is practical need not an emotional blackmail that implicates the audience in a boy's raw deal. We need only think of the sounds we hear in this scene. These are the harsh sounds of nature and the efficiency of day to day living. Though Naderi accepts that to work at such a young age is to start life too soon, that doesn't mean such a belief has to find a ready socio-political form, a form that says the meaning of the scene resides in its social injustice. This is the sort of pathetically presented social iniquities that led Oscar Wilde to claim that only someone with a heart of stone would cry at Little Nell's death: that Dickens had so telegraphed a reader to feel a certain emotion in relation to the unjust; that anyone with complexity of feeling would balk at the manipulation.
But a moment of true feeling obviously also has its own form, and we might be reminded of some of Jacques Ranciere's claims in The Future of the Image, where he muses over the question of representing the Holocaust, and believes that actually not only is it readily representable, but the use of stylistic devices utilised by Flaubert long before the event have also been used by novelists tackling the extermination of the Jews. We are not proposing there is an authenticity missing from so many films dealing with childhood, and yet at the same time certain truths cannot quite find outer form without devices being rejected so that these truths can be reached. Now if Naderi too readily adopted some of the socio-political pathos Dickens so often offered with such efficiency (and perhaps even social influence), he couldn't have got close to the truths he is seeking, and that we believe tie into two things: the physical immediacy of the world, and how individual beings are, if you like, fathered and mothered by it to the point that the notion of the orphan makes little sense. If in Dickens, in Great Expectations and Oliver Twist, Pip and Oliver are orphans, and Dickens, and also the numerous adapters of these novels, including David Lean, Carol Reed and Roman Polanski, insist on making this the fundamental aspect of the characters' lives, in The Runner the central character cannot quite be without parentage: he is a child not of society but more of nature. The film's purpose is to show nature containing the child, and yet not at all in a pantheistic manner.
As we've proposed, this is a world of brute existence, and so the boy must adapt to a reality that will contain him only as he protects himself. Pantheism suggests a humming oneness, deriving as it does from the Greek for 'all'; Naderi's world a colliding of elements. The boy must earn his place within a natural world where strife is inevitable. Think of the scene halfway through the film where the boy chases after a man who hasn't paid for the water the runner has sold him. In a series of shots we see the boy running after a man twice his age and twice his height and who is on a bike while the boy must use the strength of his own young legs. In some sixteen shots Naderi shows the boy's determination to get his man, even though at the same time he will have left his block of ice and his cups at his stand, and the ice will be melting and the water possibly being stolen. As Naderi cuts back and forth between the boy and man on the bike, so he builds a suspense that conforms to classic Hollywood continuity editing of parallel montage, but contains within it a dimension greater than the technique. This is a fundamental need that is being expressed, not merely a gesture of one-upmanship, nor a moment of narrative tension cranking. If one exists in a world of strife, if one lives within an existential reality that is fundamental, one cannot allow another person to take what is rightfully yours within the laws of survival. If Naderi proposes that such characters start life too soon (and believes himself to be one of those characters), then it is perhaps that one exists within the law of strife at a time when many children live instead in world of nurture.
But at what age should one start to strive, and is the central difference between a Dickensian approach and Naderi's this issue of striving? For Dickens, childhood is the age of innocence, but where many children are forced out of that innocence by exploitation - and Dickens pays great attention in Oliver Twist, for example, to how people benefit from the exploitation of others - Naderi immediately accepts the problem for what it is, and shows the boy adjusting to it. The film's un-sentimentality resides centrally in the agency Naderi gives his leading character. As the man escapes on the bike, the boy follows and in the sixteen or so cuts we see how determined the boy happens to be. Near the end of the scene Naderi increases the pace of the cutting as he cuts back and forth between the rear of the bike and the boy almost touching the pannier, before the boy eventually pushes the man off the bike altogether. Naderi could have shown the boy's failure and consequently increased the film's pathos, but in the process he would be undermining the film's purpose that is, if you like, a boy's apprenticeship in the world of striving.
Consequently we notice that the scenes where the boy plays with the other kids isn't so very different from the scene where the runner chases the man on the bike. Naderi's cutting works equally well for work or play, for striving is central to both. The difference in the latter resides in the absence of suspense: that Naderi shows the link between work and play, but where one contains the suspense of survival; the other seems more to be an exercise in the use of the body for the needs of that survival. These are characters for whom work and play may be different in terms of the relative pain of work and pleasure of play, but, just as in most contemporary western societies work and leisure require similar attributes of the relatively non-active, so Naderi focuses on the elements of work and play as decidedly active. Now it is these active elements that make his characters close to the elements of the world just as the attributes of thought and bodily inactivity represent the distance from the elements in contemporary western society. It may be a commonly held worry in the west that children spend much of their time playing computer games and watching television, but are these not the processing skills that they will also utilise in their working life? What is so great about Naderi's film is that he doesn't want to show a world that is not relevant to his character's existence, for the needs of an audience, and where pathos would have undermined his project. It could have hinted at how the other half lived and removed the issue he is addressing: the issue of being at one with a world that is consistent with the world in which one exists. The whole point of Oliver Twist is really the very opposite; that Oliver - unlike for example the Artful Dodger - cannot adjust to the poverty stricken world he is thrown into, and this is part of Dickens' ameliorative politics. As he shows people either incapable of adjusting or corrupted by the adjustment, Dickens proposes a different system than exploitative industrial capitalism. Naderi throws up something much more contentious as he wonders whether orphan status contains within it a freedom that allows for social expectations to be removed and elemental being to become a possibility.
This is not the place to say if Naderi's film is finally political or not. From a certain perspective that there are so many Iranian street kids here and that Naderi shows their attempts to subsist is potentially politically embarrassing for a social system that wants to create possibilities for children in Iran - after all we should remember the film was made under the auspices of the Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults. But Naderi seems too much of a filmmaker to allow political issues to be paramount over filmic freedom. When he says in the Eye on the World interview that as a child he would earn his admission to see all the films in town by calling out the programs for the ten theatres, he "never advertised the Indian or Arabic exploitation movies because I soon recognized they were rubbish, bad imitations of Hollywood", the threat from the poverty of imagination appears finally more significant a problem than the poverty of material reality.
The Runner wants, if you like, to run with a question, the very question we proposed at the beginning of this piece: what allows man to become at one with the world and not discretely cushioned from it by the sub-divisions of the social? The boy in the film lives chiefly off necessity and desire; he lives off the necessity of survival, and the desire for pleasure. Occasionally these are sublimated into broader social goals like the wish for an education, but even here the runner manages to make learning elemental. Shortly before the end of the film we hear him chanting the words he is learning as though it is half educational need and half religious ritual. It's as though Naderi is asking what should one work from to become a self. It isn't enough to be born into a civil society, to have parents and brothers and sisters. There is an even more fundamental relationship with the elements that we are born out of, and maybe there is a loss from our generally perceived gain: that to possess parents, instant social status and security we never get a chance to access our elemental being. From this point of view some might say the film fits neatly into a tradition that incorporates Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and films like Francois Truffaut's The Wild Child, and Werner Herzog's The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser. There is some truth in this, yet where Truffaut and Herzog pointed up the absurdity of social ritual, The Runner is much more concerned with elemental possibility. This is also no Garden of Eden, no garden of tranquillity, but instead a world of jarring sounds, with trains trundling, waves crashing, boys' screaming, sharks hovering, and planes screeching overhead. The elements in Naderi's world are not calming, but, as we've proposed, strife-full. The mystery the director generates out of these elements is not a priori - they are not in-themselves givens of a purer culture than the civilized, for they feed off and are part of the culture that many other directors would likely condemn. Naderi cuts through the Dickensian problem of orphan status, and Herzog and Truffaut's meditation on what it is to enter the world of culture and language, and muses over how one survives amongst the natural and the industrial elements for the purposes of need and desire. There is for example no immediate condemnation of the oil industry here that is vital to employment around the Caspian sea. We notice first and foremost that the oil drums provide an opportunity for play: the boys place various objects on one of the drums and race to see who will reach it first.
Naderi has insisted his work isn't 'political', and that may be explained by the fact that though Naderi shot the film in 1984 only a few miles from the war front, the Iran-Iraq war is ignored. This seems much more a pre-revolutionary film, a work where the influence of the West is much more present than the war that was taking place. Neither specially religious nor political, if the film possesses a relatively timeless quality it resides in the nature of its question. This is a question that asks what is it for a boy to live without parentage, without a home, without schooling, and still very much live and survive as a human being. The mystery resides not least in how Naderi proposes not the tragedy of such a life, but its beauty and resilience.
© Tony McKibbin