Town Of Runners


Reviewed by: Emma Slawinski

Town Of Runners
"The product of around four years’ filming, Town Of Runners is impressive on several levels."

The town of Bekoji in Ethiopia has produced several Olympic and world track champions. The achievements of Bekoji’s international athletes has given rise to several generations brought up on the hope that they can achieve progress and prosperity – for their country as well as themselves and their families – and there are hundreds of dedicated runners in the town who train daily.

Town Of Runners follows three young people from Bekoji, along with their coach, Sentaheyu Eshetu, a former primary school PE teacher who has trained some of Bekoji’s brightest athletics stars, such Derartu Tulu, the first African woman to win an Olympic gold in 1996, and world champions Kenenisa Bekele, Tariku Bekele and Tirunesh Dibaba.

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At the centre of the documentary are two teenage girls, Alemi and Hawii, whose love of running is plainly communicated by their enormous smiles when they talk about their main occupation. Both exude a childlike grace and innocence, but also wisdom beyond their years and a very adult commitment to the sport.

The documentary’s narrator, Alemi and Hawii’s friend Biruk, is also an important character. His dreams of becoming a professional athlete are frustrated early on as he fails to qualify for entry to one of the country’s clubs, and accepts that he must focus on his studies in order to be able to make a better life for himself.

The product of around four years’ filming, Town Of Runners is impressive on several levels. The four central characters are endearing and articulate, while thanks to the extended filming period it manages to chart a time of rapid and significant change in Bekoji and Ethiopia more generally. It provides a panoramic view spanning the local and national, but also comes across as a community effort – allowing the participants to tell the story in their own words.

Alemi, Hawii, Biruk and Eshetu display a touching sincerity and dedication. Life in rural Ethiopia is plainly not a walk in the park, and while the girls are loved and nurtured by their families and Eshetu, the world of professional running is tough, competitive and, in a country where resources are scarce, often unfair. One of the strengths of Town Of Runners is that it can paint such a positive picture of patriotism, the sort that prizes hard work in order to improve the lot of a country and its people, without losing objectivity and the ability to take a critical look at the subject matter.

Though it is done delicately, the documentary does not flinch from showing the flaws in the country’s drive for athletic achievement and international recognition – poor organisation and uneven distribution of wealth. For example, the two girls qualify to join professional running clubs, but their experiences are strikingly different because of the presence or lack of local funding. A short time after they begin training, they are reunited for a national ceremony to celebrate the country’s developing athletics culture, and the lavish event is presented in sharp contrast to the hardships that some of the young sportsmen and women are clearly having to endure.

One recurring theme in the film is the discussion of a new road to be built by the Chinese, that will turn Bekoji’s main dirt track into a modern transport link, bringing a better connection with the city and increased trade. This stokes curiosity about the extent of foreign investment and what other effects it might have on this small town, but it is not elaborated on. It is a small complaint of a coherent and lovingly-made film.

Town Of Runners is informative, but celebratory and hopeful, without resorting to sugar-coating its subject matter or to painting an unnecessarily bleak picture of a country that clearly still has a long way to go.

Reviewed on: 16 Apr 2012
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A documentary following three young runners from a small Ethiopian town that keeps producing champions.
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Director: Jerry Rothwell

Year: 2012

Runtime: 80 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: Ethiopia, UK

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