By Toni Weis
How could one remote little town in rural Oromia produce a range of athletes that won no less than 32 world championships and 8 Olympic gold medals? If you want to find out, go and see Town of Runners, the stunning new documentary by director Jerry Rothwell.
Over a period of three years, the film follows the lives of Alemi and Hawii, two budding local runners, and their coach, Sentayehu Eshetu. Many defining themes of today’s Ethiopia are playing out in the background: ambitious government schemes, young people seeking opportunities in the city, Chinese-built infrastructure branching out to the countryside, an exciting sense of rapid development mixed with the frustration about mind-numbing bureaucratic incompetence. But the film is at its best when it simply follows the everyday lifes of its protagonists. The portraits of the girls in particular are intimate, yet never feel intrusive or awkward. And so we get a number of privileged insights into paternal pride and teenage giddiness, homesickness and family visits, brazen ambition and small betrayals.
Like any good documentary, Town of Runners doesn’t provide closure, it just stimulates your curiosity (we don’t know if Alemi and Hawii will ever ‘make it’, but we sure would like to). It also gives you a reason to look forward to the London Olympics – go Tirunesh! – , in case you don’t have one yet. To see if Town of Runners is playing at a theatre near you (if you are in the UK, that is), click here.
… And since you’re already at it, check out Running Across Borders, the organisation co-founded by Oxford African Studies’ own Malcolm Anderson. They not only have the best NGO name since the International Potato Center was founded in 1971, they also do stellar work with promising East African athletes. And if the film inspired you, RAB will even let you train with them and put you up at their Addis Ababa campus. Sounds like a one-of-a-kind experience – as long as you’re not afraid of heights (Addis is at 7,500 ft altitude), or of being left in the dust by a bunch of 18-year olds…