Town of Runners
- Posted: 20th Jun 2012
- Category: Reviews
- Tags: laura thornley,  review,  jerry rothwell,  athletics,  ethiopia
by Laura Thornley
Ever wondered why Ethiopians dominate the long distance running circuit? There may be some answers in this new documentary by Jerry Rothwell, a timely look at the trials facing two young Ethiopians from Bekoji - a place that has produced some of the best track athletes of modern times. The film isn’t overloaded with sentiment, thankfully, but presents an informative and touching account of the rocky path to pursuing one's dreams.
Town of Runners follows two teenage girls, Alemi and Hawii, as they pursue their dreams to become the next track star and find a way out of poverty. In their hometown, running is the done thing. The town has produced runners such as Kenenisa Bikele, Tirunesh Dibaba and Derartu Tulu. Why? “Because if you can run here you can run anywhere” says the one-man training team Coach Sentayehu. And maybe he is right. The town lies a couple of hundred kilometres south of the capital Addis Ababa but can only be reached by a mud road. At 10,500 feet above sea level, its air is thin and breathing can be a bit of problem just walking, so if you train there the rest of the world should be a doddle.
The road isn’t a straightforward one for either of the girls and support isn’t as readily available as other countries. Both win numerous races and show great promise, so much so that they are chosen to leave their families and train in a government-funded club. Sounds great, until Hawii gets to her club to find it's ill-funded with poor living conditions. Chained to their clubs for reasons unknown Hawii must decide if this dream is worth the hardship. Coupled with that the fact that Hawii’s education has to be given up, you come to realise what a commitment this truly is.
Alongside the story of the girls is the young boy, Biruk Kiadu, who works in the town kiosk and who equally finds running a way out. His presence gives the film further narrative depth: the change and ‘progress’ of a small African village. The position of his family kiosk means he is witness to the comings and goings of the town: its development, giving way to a tarmac road (courtesy of the Chinese), a new mobile phone mast (but he can't see that taking off) and even a cooperative taking over his family shop.
The doc is a gentle musing on rural life in Africa and the advent of development and changing youth expectations. The infrastructure to support these young athletes is weak to say the least, with the coach even looking to the Chinese to renovate their track. Considering the less than state of the art conditions these athletes develop in, you would expect their performances at the Olympics to suffer but that’s the best thing: it doesn’t. They are winning the gold medals.
In recent years I have become so disillusioned with sport, I find it hard to even muster the energy to wave a plastic flag in support of the Olympic team. The amount of controversy, money and dubious behaviour that is constantly highlighted in the press is outrageous. I don’t just mean football. There’s Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong on doping trial and ‘fat’ Jess Ennis accused of being overweight. If you need reminding (like I obviously do) that the sporting world isn’t so bad, then this heart-warming doc should do the trick.
Dir. Jerry Rothwell. Subtitled: English. 2011
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