A look into the realistic, humanistic and poetic Amir Naderi’s cinema


Iranian film director and writer Amir Naderi’s[1] rise to prominence has not only provided him with the recognition that his powerful cinema richly deserves, but it has also helped shed light for world audiences on an almost ‘closed society.’ His success has helped open new frontiers for other Iranian film-makers inside and outside of Iran.

Bahman Maghsoudlou & Amir Naderi

Naderi is one of the major Iranian film-makers whose work and contributions (along with a few others)[2] to Iranian cinema in the 1970s created the magnificent fundamental basis that blossomed and flourished in the 1980s and has established itself in the 1990s as one of the most realistic, humanistic and poetic cinemas to have emerged on the world scene.

Of the eleven feature films that Naderi has written and directed in Iran between 1971 and 1986 (he left Iran for New York in 1986), seven of them have been selected to compete in more than thirty international film festivals. Among the honours he has received are two Grand Prizes (one for Davandeh/The Runner [1985] and one for Aab, Baad, Khaak/Water, Wind, Sand (1989); a First Leading Actor prize, won by Behruz Vosoughi, the lead in Tangsir (1974); a Golden Plaque for Entezar/Waiting (1974) ; and a Gold Medal Special Jury Award for Marsiyeh/Elegy (1975, released 1978). He has been honoured at the Pesaro Film Festival (1990) where a retrospective was presented of nine of his films. Two years later, in 1992, the La Rochelle Film Festival in France held another ‘Homage to Naderi.’

General background
Naderi was born in 1945 in the port city of Abadan, which is situated on a delta where the Shat-tol-Arab waterway runs into the Persian Gulf. The city surrounds the world’s largest oil refinery.

When he was 5 years old, Naderi was orphaned by the death of his mother. He has very few memories of his mother and does not remember his father at all. Left a young street urchin struggling to survive in an impoverished society, Naderi began to tap his well of creativity by finding a variety of ways to support himself: he sold ice water to passers-by, was a shoeshine boy, and even gathered and sold empty beer bottles from the refuse dumped into the sea by passing ships.

In his early teens, Naderi left Abadan and travelled to the Iranian capital city of Tehran where he managed to obtain work as a still photographer on movie sets – a job that he performed into his early twenties. He loved the cinema and quickly understood that it was where he belonged.

When he was 25, Naderi directed his first film, Khoda Hafez, Rafiq/Goodbye, Friend (1970), and a year later made his second film, Tangna/Impasse (1973). These two films were immediately recognized as the emergence of a major new talent in the world of Iranian cinema.

Goodbye, Friend reflects the influence of gangster movies such as Rififi (Jules Dassin, 1955) and The Asphalt Jungle (John Huston, 1950), and the works of directors such as Dassin, Jean-Pierre Melville and Don Siegel. It tells the story of three young friends, Jalal, Naser and Khosrow, who rob a jewellery store. After the robbery, greed, betrayal and revenge turn them into mortal enemies. Naderi’s talent for irony is revealed at this early point in his career, as in the final shot of the film where we see the suitcase of stolen loot abandoned in an overhead luggage rack in a train compartment, observed only by an innocent boy.

In Impasse, Naderi further develops the character of Khosrow, the best of the three friends from Goodbye, Friend. Khosrow unwittingly kills someone and must raise three hundred dollars to escape the city with his family. He appeals for money to friends, acquaintances and, as tension and desperation build, to anyone and everyone he can think of who might help him. In the end, his failure to raise the money costs him his life. This grim, unsentimental look at urban life, its atmosphere and complex relationships, with genuine directorial skill, immediately established Naderi as a major emerging talent.

In 1973, Naderi wrote and directed two more films: Tangsir and Saaz Dahani/Harmonica (1973). Tangsir, an epic drama, was his first colour, cinemascope film. In creating the film, Naderi successfully combined the twelve-page short story of Shir Mohammed by Rasul Parvizi (‘The Patched Pants,’ 1957), and Tangsir, a two hundred-page novel by Sadeq Chubak, a prominent Iranian novelist, published in 1963. Although the movie was made in the framework of Iran’s popular commercial cinema, thematically and stylistically it is a powerful work. When you compare the film to the book, Naderi’s contributions become obvious. He delivers the story with artistic integrity and an assured sense of timing.

On the set of Tangsir, in the port city of Bushehr, in the landscapes of his childhood, Naderi found a way to personalize his work by relating incidents from his own life. Here, Naderi comes into his own, for in depicting the frustration and repression that culminates in the brutal act of vengeance, he leaves the influences of Hollywood behind and finds his own unique expression of justice in the world of his childhood.

Tangsir’s plot pivots on the practice, common in small towns, of Iranian peasants placing their meagre savings with a consortium of men from the local wealthy ruling-class for investment. They are supposed to receive an occasional interest payment and may withdraw their money at any time. However, when Zar Mohammed respectfully requests the return of his life savings from Bushehr’s four prominent men – the mayor, the judge, the police chief and the leading merchant – they claim that his money was lost in an unfortunate trade. Zar Mohammed insists and pleads for the return of his money, but they laugh at him and throw him out. Since the men represent the law of the town, the only recourse available to Zar Mohammed is personal vengeance. In a masterful stroke, though, Naderi transforms the act of personal revenge into a universal expression of mass revenge. Selected for the International Delhi Film Festival in India in 1974, Tangsir’s leading man, Behruz Vosoughi, received the Best Leading Actor award.

The film Harmonica (produced by the film centre of the Institute for Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults [IDCYA]) is the beginning of his departure from commercial cinema. Based on his own experience, the film cleverly deals with a different type of suffering and a collective justice. It depicts the vulnerability to cruelty and exploitation that poverty brings – and in the end how a just society can collectively deal with it wisely.

After making four conventional films, particularly the two made back to back in 1973, Tangsir and Harmonica, two major factors affected Naderi’s cinema. Hard times behind the scenes while making Tangsir caused his personal vision to become considerably darker in Elegy, and the editing of Harmonica by Sohrab Shahid-Sales, another Iranian icon, encouraged Naderi to cut his ties to commercial cinema and leave behind concerns about his films’ performance at the box office. He began to experiment artistically with poetic expression using a minimal approach.

The collaboration between Naderi and Shahid-Sales would affect the work of both men. This is probably due to the fact that they were the same age, had both experienced a tough childhood and had much in common, including sensitivity, untamed attitudes, individualism, resistance to compromise, and an energy filled with pessimism. The anti-story, anti-drama and unsentimental cinema of Shahid-Sales caused Naderi to move beyond his early-Hollywood-influenced cinema. This new independence, coupled with his great instinct and talent, refocused his directorial direction on colour, form, framing and visual elements (Waiting, The Runner and Water, Wind, Sand). Similarly, Harmonica had an effect on its editor. As for Shahid-Sales, he left Iran for good the following year to begin making films in Germany. In the film Reifezeit/Coming of Age (1978), he employed a bicycle as the object of a young boy’s obsession as much as Naderi used a musical instrument in Harmonica.

Waiting (also produced by IDCYA) is a film almost totally without dialogue that romantically conveys experiences from Naderi’s own childhood. Young, sensitive Amiro appears at the home of a rich neighbour. Through a crack in a door, a beautiful pair of female hands offer him a portion of ice in a crystal bowl. Slowly, the boy develops an emotional attachment to the beautiful hands that borders upon obsession. In the final scene he goes to the door expecting to see the beautiful hands of the mystery woman, only to be offered a bowl of ice by hands that are old and gnarled. The daring Waiting was hailed by critics as one of the most visually striking films in the history of Iranian cinema. It received the Grand Prix at the 11th International Meeting of Film and Youth at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival and the Golden Plaque at the Virgin Islands Festival the same year.

Naderi’s next film, Elegy, was a contrast to Waiting – a plunge into bitter realism, a personal vision of his own society and its oppressive economic structure. The film was suppressed for political reasons, until 1977, a year before the Iranian Revolution. In 1977 it was shown at the San Remo Film Festival and received a gold Special Jury Award.

In 1975, Naderi received an offer to go to New York to direct Sakht-e Iran, Sakht-e America/Made in Iran, Made in America, a film about a boxer caught in a web of Mafia intrigue. Naderi had doubts about the undertaking, but he decided not to pass up the opportunity to go to the United States and direct a film in New York. He believed the chance to try and extend himself was well worth the effort. While it was a technically enriching learning experience for Naderi, he was out of his element. The film, released during the political turmoil of Iran’s revolution, received little attention.

Returning to Iran, Naderi made two semi-documentary films for Islamic Republic Radio and Television (IRTV), Josteju/The Search (1980) and Josteju 2/The Search 2 (1981). The first is about a missing person before and after the revolution (it was shown at the Nantes Film Festival); the second deals with the Iran–Iraq War. Both films were banned by the Iranian government. Ironically, The Search 2 is an anti-war film.

From 1981 to 1984, Naderi experienced the greatest evolution in his style as a film-maker in creating his masterpiece, The Runner. The film powerfully blends an exciting sense of visual dynamics with the philosophical themes of resistance, power and self-reliance in depicting a homeless boy’s struggle for survival in an Iranian town (one not unlike Naderi’s birth place).

The Runner was the first post-revolutionary film to come out of Iran and was a true turning point for Iranian cinema after the revolution. It was shown on the last day of the Venice Film Festival, where it received both critical and popular acclaim. It later shared the Grand Prix of the Tri-Continents Film Festival at Nantes and has been selected for such prestigious festivals as those in London, Tokyo, Hong Kong, San Francisco and Sydney. Its success at festivals prompted its commercial release in England, France, Germany, Japan and the United States.

Like The Runner, his next film Water, Wind, Sand is stylistically powerful and texturally rich. In approximately seventy, almost dialogue-less minutes, Naderi seeks to bridge the gap between realism and fantasy as young Amiro tries to survive the horror of almost certain death in an unrelenting, unending desert devoid of food and water. From the harsh elements and the inevitability of his own death, Amiro escapes into a dream world where he miraculously digs into the sand and discovers life-saving water.

To create a harsh world of blowing sand and drought ending with a flood of water and life, Naderi brings to bear all of his skills as a still photographer and visual artist. One of his finest moments of mastery is found in the breath-taking shot of the desert that Naderi so skilfully framed and lit that one immediately is reminded of photographs of the surface of the moon. And at once, the audience sees and understands the total hopelessness of Amiro’s situation. In the final sequence, Naderi frames a shot containing only a hammer, a pair of worn shoes and a small mound of sand. The camera hangs on the scene for a moment, which has the beauty of a painting by Dutch Master, before, from off-camera, sand flies into the scene as Amiro escapes into a dream world where he digs into the sand and miraculously discovers an ocean flowing underneath. In the attempt to make the illusional world believably real, Naderi succeeds, at the very least, to make it a believable dream.

When it was finally released by the government in 1988, Water, Wind, Sand was selected to be shown at the Fajr Film Festival in Tehran. In 1989, the first international screening of Water, Wind, Sand was at the Locarno Film Festival with almost eight thousand spectators attending.[3] Unfortunately it was shown out of competition, a condition set by Iran before they would send the film. Later however, they changed their minds and allowed the film to be shown in competition whereupon it received the Grand Prix at the Tri-Continental Festival at Nantes (1989) and was shown at prestigious festivals in Montreal, New York (New Directors/New Films), San Francisco and many more.

Although several of Naderi’s films have been banned by the Iranian government, Naderi is not a political film-maker. Any political statement is derived from his strong conscience, which does not allow him to compromise what he knows to be the truth of life in his native land. Hence, through his unique visionary style, he conveys his personal attitude towards injustice, misery and suppression – not just that of the society in which he grew up and from which he escaped, but of all humankind who live in such degrading circumstances.

 Insights into Naderi’s films
After viewing a Naderi film, it is impossible to believe that the film was made by a man who never got beyond the Fifth Grade. Naderi had to leave school at the age of 12 to go out onto the streets to support himself from day to day. As he sat shining other peoples’ shoes, he had a lot of time to think about his life. He came to the realization – one far wiser than his years – that without knowledge and learning, he would always be tied to the ground and never be able to soar. So Amir Naderi began educating himself. He read every important novel he could find, short stories, anything that would add to his knowledge and understanding – he even translated from the Persian. He found a home in literature and through a love of art, taught himself about paintings. It was Naderi’s personal understanding of the power of learning, of literacy, that found expression in some of the most powerfully emotional scenes in The Runner, as Amiro comes to the realization that the strongest weapon he can have against the treadmill of poverty is literacy and education.

It is interesting, psychologically, to note how Naderi’s early characters reflected his own early life in its dead-end situations devoid of hope; but just as his life changed, so did the lives of his characters: they became more optimistic, they found hope and they believed that their goals were attainable – and they were, if only in their dreams.

Naderi’s cinema, emphasizing the personal struggles for survival of men, leaves little or no place for women. If women do have any presence, they are minor characters with no real role to play and no real impact on the story. Their function is either sexual (Goodbye, Friend, Impasse, Tangsir) or relegated to the role of mother or aunt. These two archetypes reach their peak of representation in the same film, Waiting.

This attitude towards women likely comes from the fact that Naderi lost his mother very early in life and raised himself in the midst of a rough society without the nurturing influence of a caring female figure.

Naderi’s films are almost plotless, like Michelangelo Antonioni’s. He works with a minimum of events and characters in relation to an environment that shapes the narrative. His narratives are lean, direct, emotional, but not manipulative. Unlike Antonioni, who focuses on middle-class women, the central figure in Naderi’s films is a poverty-stricken young man, or a boy on the verge of manhood struggling with survival in a ruthless, brutal world of economic and emotional deprivation.

Naderi’s cinema is honest like John Ford’s, poetic like Robert Flaherty’s, masculine like Howard Hawks’s, mysterious as Alfred Hitchcock’s, as powerful as Orson Welles’s, humanistic like Jean Renoir’s, bitter and realistic like Vittorio De Sica’s and sometimes as dark and surrealistic as Luis Buñuel’s.

His vision runs from dark pessimism in his early films (Goodbye, Friend, Impasse and Elegy) to bright optimism in his last films (The Runner and Water, Wind, Sand). In contrast to the heroes of his early films, in his later films, Naderi’s heroes are shaped in a more idealistic mode. He endows them with the most positive human virtues: courage, honesty, fairness, persistency. They do not compromise their convictions; material goods and worldly flesh cannot seduce them; no force can break their will. They are not weak. In their harsh world, when they are betrayed, when their trust is violated, personal vengeance is required.

His oeuvre is a rich exploration of human concerns: friendship and betrayal (Goodbye, Friend); need and trust (Impasse); justice (Tangsir); exploitation (Harmonica); coming of age (Waiting); poverty and misery (Elegy); discovery and exploration of truth (The Search); the devastation of war (The Search 2); the power of resistance and self-education to surmount life’s most difficult obstacles (The Runner); and perseverance (Water, Wind, Sand).

Stylistically, Naderi uses the camera as restless eyes. It moves swiftly left and right; now, it pauses to observe something of significance, then, swiftly moves on to unfold its story; all adding to the realism and excitement of his work. Amir Naderi brings to bear the force of the experiences and observations of his youth. He masterfully depicts the dark, stark reality of a repressed and impoverished society. He hails the courage and strength (and sometimes the weakness) of those who struggle for survival and yet are able to retain their human dignity and personal integrity. Despite the horror and frustration in the struggle against overwhelming odds, Naderi’s canvases are always filled with the sensitivity, vulnerability and poetic grace that endow the human spirit.

[1] Amir Naderi has lived in New York City since 1987. He has since directed three feature films: Manhattan by Numbers (1993), Manhattan ABC (1997) Marathon (2002), Sound Barrier(2005), Vegas: Based on a True Story(2008), Cut((2011).

[2] Among them Bahram Beyzaie, Sohrab Shahid-Sales, Dariush Mehrjui, Masoud Kimiai, Parviz Kimiavi, Abbas Kiarostami, Naser Taghvaei, Ali Hatami, Nosrat Karimi, Kamran Shirdel, Ebrahim Golestan and Farrokh Ghaffari.

[3] I was the sole Iranian film critic present at Locarno, and I witnessed the impact of this film on the audience with pride, particularly as I had highly praised Naderi’s The Runner the previous year at the same festival. Reflections on Iranian Cinema (1979–1999): A Personal Journey will be published soon. The publisher is not known yet.


About Author

Bahman Maghsoudlou

Film scholar/critic Bahman Maghsoudlou, recipient of Iran’s prestigious Forough Farrokhzad literary award (1974), is the author of Iranian Cinema, (NYU, 1987) and Grass: Untold Stories, about the making of Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life, (Mazda, 2008). He has been a panelist, juror and lecturer at a wide variety of film festivals, as well as serving as president of the juries. His films as director and/or producer, both features and documentaries, have been selected for over 100 festivals, garnering many awards. Maghsoudlou has directed six documentaries, notably Abbas Kiarostami: A Report. His last documentary Razor’s Edge: the Legacy of Iranian Actresses premiered at 40th Montreal World Film Festival 2016. His productions include: Amir Naderi’s Manhattan by Numbers (Venice, Toronto, London, Chicago, 1993), Seven Servants with the legendary Anthony Quinn (Locarno -Grand Piazza), Montréal, Toronto, 1996), Bahman Ghobadi’s Life in Fog (1998), the most awarded short documentary in Iranian Cinema history, and Silence of the Sea, winner of six prizes, and selected for over 20 festivals, including Sundance 2004. Having organized the first ever Iranian Film Festival in New York in 1980, he originated the International Short Film Festival: Independent Films on Iran held in October 2007 at Manhattan’s Asia Society. A graduate in cinema studies from the City University of New York and recipient of a PhD from Columbia, Maghsoudlou lives in New York.

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