A surprising and surprisingly touching documentary about Olympic runners.
The sound of feet pounding the earth makes up much of the soundtrack to Jerry Rothwell's fascinating feature documentary, Town of Runners. In Bekoji, a small rural town in Ethiopia, it is also the soundtrack to a way of life. As the home of the current Olympic and World champions, Tirunesh Dibaba and Kenenisa Bekele, Bekoji is a fortress for talented runners and Olympic heroes alike.
This story follows the lives of two young Olympic hopefuls, Hawii and Alemi, as they struggle to realise their sporting dreams in a highland town in the midst of change. The film is beautifully balanced between the girls’ growth and the urban swell of their hometown. As Hawii and Alemi develop under the supervision of PE teacher, Sentayehu Eshetu, so too does Bekoji move towards something approaching modernity.
The film may begin in 2008 when Bekoji’s telephone poles confuse the local inhabitants, but by 2011 and the end of the documentary, the town shop has become a Co-op and all of the children have a mobile phone.
The beauty of Town of Runners lies in is its subtlety. Hawii is straightforward in her aspirations. She says, "when I run, I know in my heart that if I work hard, I will become famous." Rothwell’s careful cinematography is careful to make sure that the film is not a simplistic fable of sporting optimism.
There are undertones of failure, such as when Hawii is moved to a poorly funded running camp at the age of 14, and it soon becomes clear that success is about more than mere talent. Alemi is the weaker runner of the two girls, but as she is placed in a better running camp, she enjoys more success.
Town of Runners is, nonetheless, a charming film. The setting of Bekoji, with its hills and greenery, provides an idyllic backdrop to Hawii and Alemi’s dreams, and the people who inspire the girls, namely their families, their teachers and each other, are refreshing in their onscreen sincerity.
The documentary is narrow in its focus, and it is close to being a campaigning film about Bekoji, but the focus on the relationship between the two girls humanises the story. Heartfelt, lively and candid, Town of Runners deserves be the sleeper hit of this Olympic year.
A documentary about aspiring Olympians in the Olympic year – predictable and a little mawkish, no?
Surprising and surprisingly touching.
So much more than a documentary about Olympic runners, Town of Runners is an introspective eulogy to a way of life.