Film Review: Town of Runners

The rural town of Bekoji, Ethiopia may be a small one, but one look at the work ethic and way of life of its inhabitants gives a clear reason why this documentary is an interesting watch.

Directed by Jerry Rothwell, Town of Runners follows the lives of Hawii and Alemi, two young girls who aspire to become professional distance runners. Shot over the course of three years, the film is narrated by Biruk, a young boy who runs his grandparents’ convenience store. Serving as the onlooker, he follows the lives of Hawii and Alemi, who both have promising futures.

During the course of the film, the girls’ training regimes are heavily affected by Bekoji’s economic changes. With a limited number of opportunities (with success often being achieved through school or running), the stories of these three individuals show how much the sport of running means to the culture of Ethiopia. Taken very seriously by the families and fellow citizens, the runners are expected to make a living out of running in order to find success. As Alemi and Hawii’s coach quips, “Once you are on the track, friendship must end.”

But like any sport, there are clear hardships faced by the athletes. When Hawii is moved to a poorly funded running camp, it becomes clear that success doesn’t come from having talent alone. And while Alemi is the weaker runner of the two, she does better, having been placed in a more developed running camp.

Like any sports documentary, Town of Runners is predictable in its theme about overcoming adversity in order to succeed. While there’s little mention of Bekoji’s long history of producing world-class distance runners, it would have been nice to learn more in order to provide the audience with a sense of why running is so big in the country. However, focusing mostly on the athletes, the director documents the more humanizing aspects, such as the challenges faced by the athletes while training and at home.

Nonetheless, Town of Runners is a charming, inspiring documentary. Shot over the course of the country’s Plough, Dry, Harvest Wet and Easter seasons, seeing the culture of Ethiopia and the interactions between each individual make the film worth watching.

7/10

(This piece was published in Exclaim! on June 28, 2012)

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