Running Against The Wind

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Running Against The Wind
"The fundamentals of this story are familiar but the story is well told with a very strong sense of place, and there's a lot going on in and around it." | Photo: Yenefasu Felemia

There can't be many more challenging places to become a runner than Ethiopia, which has consistently produced some of the best in the world, but in this engaging film by newcomer Jan Philipp Weyl it's a route out of poverty for young Abdi (Ferhane Beker; later Ashenafi Nigusu). His natural talent and hard work could take him all the way to the top, but he never forgets his childhood friendship with Solomon (Alamudin Abduselam; later Mikias Wolde), who set off for the city as a kid, hoping to make his name as a photographer. When their paths cross again, it changes both their lives.

Opening with two charming young leads who quickly get the audience engaged, the film unfolds into a multi-layered drama which explores many aspects of life in modern Addis Ababa and its environs. Cities everywhere have a habit of eating up young people who go there to seek their fortunes, and this is no different. Though he manages to hang onto his camera, quickly becoming known as Photo, Solomon is drawn into a street gang and subsequently into a life of crime, stealing Mercedes engines for a vicious boss. It's even harder for him to get out of this once he marries and has a child, as their safety can also be threatened, but a chance reconnection with Abdi leads to better prospects. Can he make the psychological adjustments necessary to benefit from this, and can he escape from coercive control, or will Abdi be inexorably drawn into his world?

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The fundamentals of this story are familiar but the story is well told with a very strong sense of place, and there's a lot going on in and around it. The stark divide between the poor and the middle classes is explored not just materially but also culturally, acknowledging the different ways of thinking that money enables and highlighting some of the barriers to social mobility that comfortable people often miss. It's not mired in misery, however, as we also see the enjoyable side of Solomon's life, his love for his family and his closeness to his friends, even when they are troubled and aggressive. His delight in small gains makes an interesting counterpoint to the rigours of Abdi's training regime, in which all the athletes are encouraged to keep their eyes on the prize.

The big narrative challenge here lies in balancing the two stories, and Weyl wisely elects not to split the running time evenly between them, trusting Nigusu to make Abdi an interesting character even though we know less about him. The result is a film which flows very well. It's visually detailed, with plenty to draw the eye, and the early rural scenes highlight the beauty of a country still too often perceived in the West as a featureless desert. There's also a strong moral aspect to the story, focused on the importance of loyalty between friends and family, and the importance of seeing the good in people. This acts as an antidote to the conventions of stories about striving for success, and centres traditional Ethiopian values as, in parallel with the protagonists' journeys, we see the country moving towards a Western model.

A rich and charismatic film with natural appeal, Running Against The Wind may not quite measure up to its considerable ambition but certainly won't disappoint.

Reviewed on: 09 Jul 2021
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When one boy takes up photography and his best friend takes up running, their paths diverge, but fate will bring them back together.

Director: Jan Philipp Weyl

Writer: Jan Philipp Weyl, Michael Wogh

Starring: Ashenafi Nigusu, Mikias Wolde, Joseph Reta Belay, Ferhane Beker, Alamudin Abduselam, Samrawit Desalegn

Year: 2019

Runtime: 116 minutes

Country: Ethiopia, Germany

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