Town of Runners takes you close to the African experience
A documentary by Jerry Rothwell. In Amharic with English subtitles. Unrated. Opens Friday, July 20, at the Vancity Theatre
Although it trots out the usual sports-movie tropes, Town of Runners is more about a place and time than about any one activity. It happens that the village of Bekoji, Ethiopia, has produced dozens of Olympic-level athletes, so running is the immediate focus of U.K.–based director Jerry Rothwell’s smooth—sometimes too slickly made—documentary.
Over the course of three years, we see Bekoji go from small town with a dirt road to potential cityhood as Chinese crews slowly pave a highway connecting it with the capital, Addis Ababa. The changes are ostensibly narrated by Biruk Fikadu, a teenage boy who works at a family convenience store by the side of that road. He’s not a gifted runner, but Biruk enjoys being part of the large turnout at training sessions led by coach Sentayehu Eshetu, who has nurtured many famous runners to the gold.
Prominent among the coach’s current hopefuls are two particularly dedicated teens, sunny Hawii and her more serious friend and occasional rival, Alemi. These local stars are eventually wooed by separate sports clubs, and that’s where the story gets thorny. Shot in very colourful HD, with lots of editing tricks and souped-up tunes (alongside some exquisite music by Ethiopian jazzer Mulatu Astatke), the doc becomes more probing as Alemi and, especially, Hawii get disenchanted with Ethiopia’s huge, highly disorganized, and obviously corrupt sports business.
The seemingly prized athletes are sent to live in conditions more primitive than those of their home villages, and they are sometimes left without adequate food or training. Town of Runners doesn’t fully explain how our young heroes circumvent these challenges, but its mix of optimism, personal intimacy, and harsh political realities takes you closer to the African experience than most movies, or North Americans, ever get.
Watch the trailer for Town of Runners.