The earliest Amir Naderi feature in the Museum of Modern Art’s recently concluded retrospective, The Runner (1984), was made only a few years after the Iranian Revolution. At that time, censorship was particularly strict, virtually necessitating the absence of women. A film that adheres closely to principles of realism can hardly pretend women don’t exist, and indeed, their absence is felt acutely throughout the film. Based closely on the director’s own life, The Runner follows Amiro, an orphan who does odd jobs—retrieving cans from the sea, shining shoes, selling water—to get by, often while fighting off the tough competition from equally desperate, often older kids. The line between play and competition is thin; the rules of male camaraderie assert themselves at every turn, culminating with the end of the film when a group of children run to retrieve a block of ice atop a barrel near a raging fire. In a move that would become common in his films, Naderi veers toward expressionism at this point: slow-motion running and close-ups of the melting ice as the roars of the flame overpower the soundtrack.
Such a departure is earned for the most purely and blatantly allegorical moment in the film, perhaps in the entire Iranian New Wave. As the boys fight with one another to get there first, the ice melts away, ultimately leaving them with less than they would have had if they cooperated. After an entire film of this male competitiveness and not so much as a glimpse of a woman, one can’t help but wonder if there might be a better way of doing things. There is, of course, but it’s kept off-screen, out of sight and all but out of mind—not unlike the women of post-revolutionary Iran.
The Runner is probably Naderi’s best-known film, and for good reason. It initiated the Iranian New Wave, and Abbas Kiarostami has explicitly cited it as a major influence on his own seminal Where is the Friend’s Home (1987), in which both Naderi’s lesson and his method of teaching it—the focus on children, the use of allegory, and the brand of realism—are clearly visible. While his renown among Iranian filmmakers of the 80s and 90s has never been in doubt, Naderi never attained the level of fame abroad some of his countrymen did, perhaps because left his home country too soon. He made one more feature in Iran, compared to four in New York, another in Las Vegas, one in Japan, and one in Italy (plus a recently wrapped production shot in Los Angeles). Given this pedigree, labels like “transnational” and “humanist” are almost too easy, but Naderi has undoubtedly maintained a focus on the underprivileged wherever he has gone, depicting locale with a sharp wit and sharper eye.
His first film made in New York, Manhattan By Numbers (1993), follows George (John Wojda) on the eve of a court date for which in which he must come up with $4,500 or face eviction. George, a recently laid-off newspaperman, goes from one industry friend to another hoping to borrow a bit of money, but all cite fear of layoffs as their miserly justification. But what begins as a search for cash becomes a search for one particular missing friend. His journey takes George from his apartment in Inwood first to Harlem, then through Times Square, into the homeless community of the Lower East Side, and at last to the financial district. Naderi inserts shots of reminders of George’s dire situation at every step, from a national debt counter to a payday loan ad on the side of a payphone to the big-name brands on billboards promising Americans that they can buy happiness when, amid the jobless recovery from the 90s recession, they can’t even make ends meet.
By the time John reaches the Lower East Side, the American Dream has almost literally disappeared. The candy-colored ads are replaced by graffitied walls and homemade black-and-white flyers taped to light-posts and fences. The uptown hustle depicted in long takes and medium shots are swapped out for direct address from the faces of the homeless (whom Naderi knew from his living in the neighborhood), dressed in scraggly clothes, unshaven, and huddling for warmth. Neither Naderi nor his protagonist make much of the casualness with which one man offers to share a beer, but the viewer can’t help but contrast the generosity of those left behind with the miserly nature of George’s friends.
Naderi would return to the Lower East Side for A, B, C… Manhattan (1997) to capture those whose existences are only slightly less fringy than the neighborhood characters from Manhattan By Numbers. We first meet Kate (Sara Paul), desperate to get out of a bad living situation with her soon-to-be ex-boyfriend, as she examines a room available for rent in an apartment. Immediately striking is the grace with which a Steadicam navigates the confined spaces, generating a claustrophobic feeling that matches that of the apartment, where things are left out not because of untidy residents but a lack of room. One resident, Kacey (Erin Norris), yells from the far bedroom to “take the room, we need your money” while the other, Colleen (Lucky Knight), reassures her that the place “is not fancy, but everything works” before pausing momentarily and adding “most of the time.” For the impecunious, anything more, even an introduction, is a luxury.
If By Numbers is about the disparate personalities of neighborhoods and their inhabitants and, by extension, a referendum on class in America, A, B, C is a humbler look at the banality of precarity. Kate needs a new place to live, Kacey is looking for her dog, and Colleen kills time at a bar with other regulars and her daughter for reasons that only gradually become apparent. The genuineness of the narrative is itself remarkable, as is the manner in which Naderi is able to inflect each story—through music, voiceover, still photographs and a brilliant cast of secondary characters—but his astute attention to human behavior, never keener, really makes the film shine. He charts confined spaces and intercuts stories with remarkable dexterity, but it isn’t until late in the film that it becomes apparent just how attentive he is to his own mise en scène. Throughout the film we watch Kacey paste her own flyers over others without so much as a second thought, but in a late moment she pauses, reads the flyer she is about to cover, and then, moved, opts to instead reinforce it. Rare is the director who can predestine and earn such a sincere moment of optimism.
Naderi would return to the working class in Vegas: Based on A True Story (2008) which pits two opposing tendencies—to make the best of what is given and the drive to escape—against one another. Its somewhat fantastical conceit is grounded by a ruthless reveal that illuminates the destructive tendencies of a hopelessness that disguises itself as infinite possibility—a fitting narrative to set in the City of Blinding Lights, itself a touchstone for precisely that allegory in American life. But his filmography also contains its fair share of detours. Even by Naderi’s standards, Sound Barrier (2005) strips away context and indulges in a pattern of prolonging and frustration as Jesse (Charlie Wilson), alone for the majority of the film, looks through an archive for an audiotape of his mother’s radio show that might contain the story of how he lost his hearing and speech at a young age. The first section of the film consists largely of shots of boxes of tapes, close-ups of the written labels, and tapes being thrown around. Gone are the long-takes and exteriors that generally characterize Naderi’s films—Sound Barrier is about sound design and sensory limitations, climaxing with an astonishing, disorienting sequence on a highway with magnetic tape littered across the roads, support and guardrails.
In Monte (2016), Naderi’s most recent film, the ever-present motif of hope reaches its most mythical heights in a story of a man (Andrea Sartoretti) in a region where sunlight is blocked by a mountain and his attempt to let the light in. It is perhaps his summative, most distilled film, taking the increasingly abstract concepts buried in his realist films to an outright mythical dimension manifesting in limited dialogue and some of the director’s most purely beautiful compositions to date. Cut, his 2011 Japanese endeavor, by contrast, would be anomalous did it not strive to be so unitary. Its protagonist (Hidetoshi Nishijima), a clear stand-in for Naderi, finds himself literally taking punches from Yakuza men to pay back the debt his brother accrued by making films. Aside from painting investors as literal gangsters, Cut also bemoans the eclipse of cinema-as-art by cinema-as-entertainment by having its character literally shout his manifesto from the rooftops, where he holds 16mm screenings of world classics. Complete withvisits to the tombs of Kurosawa, Ozu, and Mizoguchi, and culminating with a countdown of its protagonist’s/director’s 100 favorite films, this would be as venomous a valentine as they come were it not ultimately so enthralled with the beauty of the art form and the idea of suffering for it. Instead, it suggests that cinema, no matter where it is made and how commodified it may be, will always make room for the artists. After that, it’s up to us to find them, whichever country they hail from or work in.