By Rod Webb
When he was a boy, Amir Naderi was too chubby to be the exact model for Amiro, the hero of his film The Runner, but he has a great sense of poetic licence.
"This is the cinema, and I can intervene in a lot ot things. Even a director who has no experience with women can direct a great love scene.
"I wasn't a good runner, but I ran a lot in my life. I tried to find somebody to portray what is inside me, not just the external appearance. I remembered Hitchcock's words that the leading actor had to be attractive. Even his bad men are attractive."
The boy Naderi finally selected to play Amiro is certainly attractive, but he's much more than that. With his eyes, his voice and, of course, his legs, Majid Nirumand demands attention in every scene.
I first saw The Runner on the closing day of the 1985 Venice Film Festival. There weren't many people present: most had already left Venice, and others didn't hold out much hope for a film made by the Iranian Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults.
But it's neither a kid's film nor a propaganda tract, although it's a film for kids of all ages and contains the best kind of propaganda for life, for survival of the human spirit.
Those of us privileged to see it were agreeably surprised by its decided lack of an institutional character and delighted by its use of surrealist elements to temper its more obvious links with neorealist tradition.
Seeing the film and hearing Naderi's story makes one aware why he placed so much importance on the selection of the right actor.
"I started to search in the south of Iran, near the war zone. I saw about 6000 kids, ordinary kids, anybody in the seventh grade. And I saw all of them had a problem like myself. Some of them were pretty but couldn't run well, some of them could run but their faces weren't pleasant.
"Then I saw a newspaper photography of three young boys. One of them was smaller than the other two, but he was standing on tiptoes. And I saw that his size ambitions were what I was looking for. I said: He thinks like me; I have to find him.
"I got his address from the newspaper office and tracked him down in Tehran.| He was in the middle of his school studies. I persuaded his fther that for the boy to work in the movie is richer than if he goes to school. I offered to hire a teacher for him during the shooting. In my days I had good teachers like Chaplin and others, but for him I had to hire real teachers.
"~The boy was a competition runner, a good one. I asked him: 'Do you know that the last 10 metres means the difference between winning and is the only thing I know'. I told him, 'That is the story of my life, the story of this film'."
Amir Naderi has always been a runner. His mother died when he was five, and he has never known his father. His homes were rusting postwar hulks on the Gulf shoreline, moving from one to the next when older people claimed ownership. His struggle to survive is described in The Runner: selling empty bottles, iced water, shoeshines. And in whatever spare time he had, he indulged his passion for the cinema. He discovered that he could see the screen of a local outdoor cinema if he stood on tiptoes atop a nearby wall. He developed strong toes.
He sold nuts in the cinema, remembering every frame of each film. "One night there was a breakage in the middle of High Sierra. I went in front of the audience and played the rest of it. And the manager said, 'OK, continue to watch well and memorise the films, beacuse we're bound to have more breakdowns'.
"Sometimes the entire power supply would go, and the ushers would give me a torch and I'd shine it on my face and perform the rest of the film. They loved it when I played a romantic scene, but they threw nuts at me when I was the bad guy. They I turned the torch off to protect myself."
His knowledge of cinema is staggering. A friend of his describes a game he plays (for money, of course) with videotapes. He spins around in front of the monitor so as to catch only a glimpse of the film playing. Once, Clark Gable walked on the screen. Naderi said, "If he turns right it's Red Dust, if he turns left it's Mogambo."
He pushed his way into film making at an early age, and became a cameraman on 16 mm films in 1968. His directing career began in 1970, and he made six feature films before going to the United States to make Made in Iran. He made extra money by spotting US film identities for a friend who worked for Iranian television and a film magazine.
"One day I went up to one man, saying in my bad English, 'Excuse me, I know who you are. If I take you to my friend I can get $10, please'. He said, 'What?' I said, 'Because you are Milos Forman. Please, just talk to my friend who is a reporter. Give me yur number, and I get $10. OK?' It worked, and my friend got the interview, and I got the $10. I needed it."
Naderi returned to Iran and made another three films before completing The Runner. Before leaving Iran for good, he made another, Water, Wind, Dust, also starring Majid Nirumand.
"It closes with Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. The authorities asked me, 'Why did you use this?' I told them, 'Because it is the greatest symbol of freedom in the world'. And they thought this was a problem."
The film was, however, eventually released, and was shown at last year's Sydney Film Festival. Naderi, now in the USA awaiting citizenship papers, retains hopes of producing his next film — Amir Beethoven — there.
"I had a feeling that The Runner was going to be the film to help me to fly. Many people like me have the hope of flying from bad times."
Shooting The Runner was a struggle in itself. He was forced to change many locations at the last minute, when the sounds and images of the war with Iraq threatened to intrude on to the frame. In the final, climactic scene — a desperate race across a barren landscape surrounded by oil refinery fires — there's a very real sense that this battle between Amiro and his peers takes place in the shadow of a real, off-screen, battle. And so it was in reality: the location was devastated by bombing not long after the filming had ended.
In the film, Amiro's private obsession is with objects of travel — ships, trains, aircraft — things which might transport him from his desperate situation, and he spends a lot of his spare time begging them to take him with them. In a metaphor for Naderi's struggle to acquire knowledge, Amiro spends his hard-earned cash on second-hand aviation magazines whose pictures he can only read. Amir Beethoven will also reflect this struggle.
[The Runner is one of 13 films in New Iranian Cinema, showing at the AFI Cinema, Paddington (Sydney), until March 28. Six of the films, including The Runner, will play at the Lumiere in Perth from April 8 to 13 and at the State Film Theatre in Melbourne from April 20 to May 1.]