Town of Runners
Touching but hesitant documentary about an Ethiopian town's knack for producing athletes
The tiny town of Bekoji in Ethiopia has produced an astonishing number of champion long-distance runners. Jerry Rothwell’s pretty and thoughtful documentary frustratingly resists analysing exactly why this is – we’re left to guess at a lucky combination of genetics, altitude and skilled training – but gets touchingly close to some of the young athletes striving to extend their local legacy. Darling teenagers Hawii and Alemi both show promise, honed by their rigorous and committed coach; but their mixed fortunes upon leaving home to train point out the fickleness of opportunity in a country punished by elements and economics alike.
Town of Runners would have benefitted from Rothwell being more forceful regarding the specifics of the situation – as it is, the film hedges its bets as to whether it’s about Africa’s situation or just the hard knocks dealt by a sporting life. Neither does the film seem to have decided whether it’s about the universality of the adolescent experience, or the precise challenges of going through it in Ethiopia. A framing device that lends sporadic narration duties to a random local boy feels like a half-hearted effort to impose structure. Yet what is singularly impressive is the interview footage: talking to Hawii, Alemi, their friends and their families, the filmmakers achieve intimacy without condescension, and capture both heartrending hopefulness and sad self-delusion. An interesting if slightly limited corrective to sanctimonious Olympics hype.
Selected release from Fri 20 April.