Dir. Jerry Rothwell, Ethopia/UK , 2012, 88 mins, in English subtitles
Cast: Hawii Megersa, Alemi Tsegaye, Biruk Fikadu
Review by Delme Stephenson
Set in the rural highland town of Bekoji in Ethopia Town of Runners is a feature documentary that focuses on the fortunes of two young girls who wish to become professional athletes against the numerable odds. Director Jerry Rothwell has crafted a remarkable film not just about athleticism but about resilience and optimism in the face of adversity. Ultimately Town of Runners is a reflective and meditative experience that warms the heart and nourishes the mind.
Shot over three years as the seasons and economic fortunes of Bekoji change, Town of Runners is narrated by Biruk, a young boy who runs his grandparent kiosk. Biruk’s amiable personality and indicative vocal tones introduces us to the film’s primary personalities – Hawii and Alemi. There are a limited number of opportunities in Bekoji with success often being achieved by either studying or running. The reality is that many work as farmers. The compelling friendship between Hawii and Alemi is integral to the film, as is their relationship with their coach Sentayehu Eshetu.
Bekoji has an incredible history of producing world-class long distance runners which has given both girls the impetus to chase their dreams. A lot of this success comes down to the agreeable but determined Eshetu who is the town’s most dedicated and respected coach. He has trained many champions including one of the first African women to win a gold medal at the Olympic Games – Derartu Tulu. Eshetu’s attitude is enviable; his smile reassures us, even though he knows the future for many of his young protégés is uncertain. As the talented young girls are adopted by sport clubs in differing areas of the country we see the effect the lack of resources and government bureaucracy has on their ability and temperament. As Eshetu sagely remarks, “The person who you thought may be the best today may turn out to be the least tomorrow.”
There is a peacefulness and unforced sense of naturalism to this feature which allows the viewer to contemplate Hawii and Alemi’s way of life. Yet while there are moments of joy, sadness and comedic flourishes – mostly provided by Eshetu – it is a film that acts in opposition to the repetitive and strained negative media images that often dominate Ethiopia. We take delight in the sound of wind as it rustles through trees and grass; the clear blue sky; a small child beating the ground; rain drizzling and thin mists forming around hills.
This is a film that is meant to inspire and it succeeds. Director Jerry Rothwell understands the dilemmas that the youth in Ethiopia encounter and yet he explores how dreams are not shaped by western ideology but within. Rothwell hints at the impact that globalisation is having upon the town, especially with the tarmac road that is being built by Chinese industrialists. Yet in the face of all this upheaval, it is the determination of the people and the support of their community that wins you over and pushes you forward.