Town Of Runners


Written by Tshepo Mokoena
22 Sunday 22nd April 2012

Over three years we follow the journey of Hawii and Alemi, two teenage female friends from Bekoji, as they both go from beneath Coach Eshetu's wing to the big bad world of national athletics: the ultimate goal is to follow in the footsteps of previous gold medal-hoarding trainees Tirunesh Dibeba and Kenenisa Bekele and compete at international level in the Olympics, IAAF and other huge track and field events.

In this documentary, Jerry Rothwell (Donor Unknown, Heavy Load) places the trajectory of the girls' successes and struggles next to one another, whilst running a dual subplot based around a local boy from their village and the wider changes taking place as Ethiopia continues the ever-arduous ascent towards economic development. Narration throughout comes from Biruk (the aforementioned Bekoji boy) whose dream to run for his country is squashed when he fails to qualify for the regional team and has to retreat to a future based solely on doing well in school and managing his grandmother's kiosk.

Coach Eshetu in the woods where he trains about 200 runners a day

The arrival of Chinese building contractors in the town signals one of the first societal shifts in the area for some time, and provides the momentum Rothwell uses to pursue not only personal and human-centred storylines but a wider sense of change in the country as a whole. The builders are there to pave the only concrete road connecting the village to the rest of the district, and scenes where their machines tear up the earth are juxtaposed with quieter snippets of training sessions in the mountainous woodlands to a jarring effect.

Alemi (L) on the sidelines of a race with two other Woliso runners

The concept of nationality, national pride and betterment by way of success in athletics is stitched into just about every interaction Hawii and Alemi directly have with Rothwell's filming crew. When both girls progress to sign contracts with training clubs beyond their home region, we’re exposed to the realities of a government promising state funds for a relatively non-essential sector in a time of economic strife.

Like boarding schools opened exclusively for runners, Hawii and Alemi’s clubs are meant to provide food, accommodation and state-of-the-art training facilities for all their handpicked members. In reality, Hawii arrives to find partially-constructed dorms, no money in the budget to feed the children after less than a month and locals resentful of a condition to contribute two percent of their wages to the training of runners (which most refuse to do anyway).

Hawii, aged 15, on the track

In addition, when we are introduced to their families it becomes clear that without running talent and hard work, both girls likely have a future of subsistence farming and early marriage ahead of them. This sense of a quiet desperation runs throughout the film and it’s hard to watch objectively without silently rooting for Alemi and Hawii as they begin each race. Often set to textured music from the region, or simply the practiced in-and-out breaths of the runner in the frame, the running sequences pulsate with the film’s overall message: a quest for freedom offered by the simple act of racing ever closer towards a finish line promising a better life.

Town Of Runners is out in the UK now click here to find a screening near you.

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