In early 2020, Darius Sam, an Indigenous nineteen-year-old living in British Columbia, lost a family member to addiction. That family member left behind a son. “I was looking at him and I was thinking, This guy’s going to have no positive male influence in his life,” Sam told me recently. “Maybe I should go and do something good,” in the hopes of inspiring himself and others. Sam started running. Having never done it seriously, he found a release, and “just kept running,” he said. Eventually, he resolved to run a hundred miles at once, to raise awareness for addiction and mental health. “The Runner,” by the Vancouver-based filmmaker Amar Chebib, chronicles Sam’s feat and his transformation.
Sam trained for only twenty-eight days before his first hundred-mile run, a small fraction of the time that many athletes would take to prepare, and collapsed before the ninety-mile mark. He decided to try again. Chebib told me he read about the first attempt and was on a call with Sam “within half an hour.” At first, the filmmaker hesitated to take on the project. Sam is of the Nlaka’pamux First Nations people of British Columbia, and Chebib, who is not Indigenous, didn’t know if he was the right person to document Sam’s journey and his reasons for embarking on it. But, once Chebib began talking with Sam, he felt compelled. “I knew that he was a special person,” he said. “He was going to do something special, and I wanted to be a part of that, to capture that.”
Sam has lost several people to addiction. He himself was born with fetal alcohol syndrome, and grew up in an adopted home after his birth mother left when he was eight months old. He often felt lost, he says in the film, and he struggled with depression in his teens. Running transformed him. In one scene, a soft hum of music picks up and the camera pans over his feet and gloved hands as he runs past a field of horses at dawn. “I started to gain confidence over time through discipline,” he says. Sam purses his lips as he lifts weights in a gym. He jogs at night. He howls at the sky.
The film was shot on Nlaka’pamux and Syilx territory in the Nicola Valley. Both the setting and the winter season lend the film a cool, almost desolate, mood. Sweeping drone footage shows the snow-covered valley, and we follow Sam overhead as his feet pound frosted forest trails. But Chebib is careful to draw out moments of warmth. In one scene, Sam’s face is awash with light as he opens up to his coach about his difficulties trusting others. When Sam begins his second hundred-mile run, on the shores of Nicola Lake, he receives a prayer from an elder. “We call on those that were runners that brought messages to the valley many, many, many generations ago,” she says. “Guide him, direct him, and protect him.” He turns to the rising sun, resolved.
“The Runner” is both a story of physical triumph and the spirit’s ability to endure. On a ranch, early in the film, Sam offers his grandfather a bit of wisdom: “You can almost callus your mind the same way you callus your hands,” he says. “I think that’s a great idea,” his grandfather replies. Somewhere around mile fifty, Sam’s body begins to give out. “He’s hurting,” his coach says, to the camera. But, as Sam’s doubts compound, the faces of his loved ones flash across the screen. He reminds himself why he’s running; he thickens his skin. His body abides and carries him forward.