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Review: Town of Runners

Documentaries are meant to capture reality and Town of Runners does just that. Filmmaker Jerry Rothwell follows the lives of two aspiring Olympians in Bekoji, rural Ethiopia, and the trials and tribulations that come with their training. Kristy Hutter reviews the inspiring film filled with memorable characters, commemorative triumphs, and devastating losses.

Bekoji is a small Ethiopian town from which a collection of celebrated Olympic medalists hail. Deratu Tulu, Kenenisa Bekele, Tariku Bekele, and Tirunesh Dibaba – running champions all trained by the same coach: the dedicated Sentayehu Eshetu, one of the documentary’s most loveable characters. Now, he must train Bekeoji’s next crop of young champions. Alemi and Hawii are two of his most promising pupils whose journeys we follow throughout the film.

In fact, it is difficult to find a character not to like in Town of Runners. Biruk, a young boy who runs his grandparents’ kiosk in town, narrates the film. Although he is not a gifted runner, he still trains with his peers. Chosen as the film’s steadfast voice, Biruk is a pillar of regularity throughout four years of shooting, documenting changes such as the eminent closing of his kiosk and the paving of the village’s only road.

The film centers around Alemi and Hawii. Essentially, they are competing against one another, but their unwavering friendship always prevails and they become each other’s main support system. Coach Eshetu offers comic relief in an environment filled with young athletes driven by the pressure to succeed. His personality shines and you can’t help but laugh at his constant antics and ridiculous commentary.

Although I have never been to Ethiopia, director Jerry Rothwell provides the viewer with what seems to be an accurate depiction of life in small-town Bekoji and the changes it undergoes throughout their time filming. He also tackles the very real dilemma of those from the younger generation who have big dreams of leaving and following in the footsteps of their heroes, rather than complying with their parents’ plea to stay back and take over the family farm.

But what is perhaps the greatest aspect of the documentary is its clichéd, yet sure-fire ability to inspire the viewer. You can’t help feeling motivated by a group of barefooted children running around a makeshift track, encouraged by the thought (and the likelihood) of making it big, much like their predecessors. Yet the film does not come off as patronizing or orientalist – it just tells it as it is, without any obvious agenda.

The film embodies the essence of documentary filmmaking. It captures the reality of life: pride and modesty; friendship and family; triumphs and defeat. It offers no particular culmination. In fact, by the end, the viewer feels a sense of frustration in what feels like an anticlimax. But the feeling we are left with works. The lack of a peak makes it all the more real and we forget the film is a film. It just feels like real life.

Town of Runners will premiere at a sold-out RichMix on 11 April, followed by screenings in selected cinemas from 20 April. For cinemas and more information visit the Town of Runners website.


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Kristy is an associate producer at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Toronto. She is a recent graduate of City University London, where she got her Master’s in International Journalism with a specialism in radio reporting. She also holds a Bachelor of Journalism from the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where she studied print and TV journalism, as well as documentary filmmaking. Early on, Andrew Jarecki’s Capturing the Friedmans got her hooked on docs and she has been obsessed with them ever since. Her other favourites are Grizzly Man, The Invisible War, and anything on Al Jazeera English.

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