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Running Is A Way Of Life

TFF Alum Jerry Rothwell's new documentary, Town of Runners, takes audiences into the lives of three young Ethiopians who dream of becoming professional runners.

Tribeca: Tell us a little about Town of Runners. How do you describe the movie in your own words?

Jerry Rothwell: Town of Runners is a documentary set in a small Ethiopian town that has an amazing record of producing world-class long distance athletes. I was interested in how that affected the dreams of young people in the town, and the film follows three of them—Hawii, Alemi and Biruk—as they try to become runners. Like many places in rural Africa, Bekoji is going through a rapid modernisation—so it’s not only a film about running, but about being a teenager in a country that is in transition.

Tribeca: What inspired you to tell this story?

Jerry Rothwell: The initial idea for the film came from one of the producers, Dan Demissie, whose family are Ethiopian. I was excited by it because as a child I lived in Kenya in the 1970s, and my heroes weren’t George Best or Neil Armstrong, but the East African runners of the time, Kip Keino and Mike Boit. Much later, my daughter had become a keen athlete. Spending a lot of time on the side of running tracks and cross country courses in Britain, I was interested in how some children seize on a sense of their own potential and develop an ambition, which is strong enough to sustain them through the hardships of daily training.
 And I wondered how that played out in an African context.

Tribeca: What do you want audiences to take away from your film?

Jerry Rothwell: I hope they gain a strong sense of the resilience of African youth and a belief that it is their dreams—not those of the West—that should shape Africa’s future. The girls’ stories are set against the background of a rural Ethiopia that is undergoing enormous changes as traditional ways of life are transformed by globalisation. On our first visit in 2008, the electricity supply was patchy, there was no mobile or internet, and Bekoji could only be reached by a 50km mud road from the nearest large town, Asella.

By the time we completed the film, at the end of 2011, the Chinese had built a new tarmac road, connecting Bekoji to the capital Addis Ababa, a new hotel had been opened with satellite TV in every room, and mobile phones were everywhere. The film tries to capture this transition and what it might mean for a new generation of Ethiopians, in a country where more than 70% of the population is under 25.

Tribeca: From the inception of the idea for the film to the final print, can you give us a sense of your timeline? How long have you been working on this project?

Jerry Rothwell: We first filmed in Bekoji during the Beijing Olympics in 2008—I wanted to capture the village watching their heroes on the world stage. We did seven shoots in all, each lasting about two weeks—the last of them at the end of 2011. We finished the film in February this year (2012), so getting on for a four-year process.

Tribeca: Hawii, Alemi and Biruk are such compelling subjects. How did you choose them for the focus of your documentary? Did legendary coach Sentayehu Eshetu suggest them?

Jerry Rothwell: Our first point of contact with the town was Sentayehu—and when we first visited we asked him to introduce us to a group of young people he thought would be interested in doing the film, and who might make interesting subjects. We stressed that it wasn’t about finding the most promising runners—but that we were interested in their lives as a whole. By the second shoot, we found that we were spending most time with Hawii, Alemi and Biruk, and we’d followed the girls to a regional competition. Hawii and Alemi’s friendship seemed important for the film, though at the time we didn’t know that they would be sent away to different parts of the country.

Tribeca: Bekoji is a very tight knit community, but they seemed so receptive to the documentary process. Were you surprised by how open they were to being filmed? Did it take them some time to warm up to the cameras?

Jerry Rothwell: Sentayehu is greatly respected in the town, so having his support for the film was really important. Our production manager in Ethiopia, Samuel Tesfaye, who acted as fixer, translator, friend, organizer, advocate, was also crucial in maintaining the relationships the film needed. Our producer, Dan Demissie, came on every shoot with me and by the end was almost fluent in Amharic. So all these factors helped us become less the outsiders. We spent a lot of time there and we kept coming back—which helps build trust. 

Tribeca: The poor conditions at the running clubs that Hawii attended were truly shocking. Do you think the impact of Town of Runners can increase their funding and possibly bring about improvements in the living conditions? Has anything changed since the release of the film?

Jerry Rothwell: Anywhere in the world, a sports club needs the support of its community to function, whether it’s rich in resources or not. I think the problem with Hawii’s club is that it didn’t have that support, and so lack of money wasn’t the main or only issue. We’re using the film to help develop education and athletics infrastructure in Bekoji, aiming to set up long term partnerships between running clubs in UK and US and the town. If we achieve that, hopefully runners won’t have to leave Bekoji (and so leave their family support and their education) so young, in order to progress their careers.

Tribeca: Everyone who watches Town of Runners will want to know how Hawii, Alemi and Biruk are doing. Can you give us an update? Have they seen the finished documentary?

Jerry Rothwell: Yes I took the rough cut back to show them at the end of last year. I think they really liked seeing that part of their lives turned into a film—and their families really enjoyed seeing their achievements. (For Alemi, it was the first time her mother had seen her running.)

They’re doing fine—Biruk has been acting as a guide for some UK athletes who went to train in Bekoji at altitude, and has got a job in a video rental kiosk; Hawii’s second club (which seemed on the point of collapse at the end of the film) managed to continue. She returned there and is doing well in competitions, back to the form she showed at the start of the film. I just heard Alemi is now back in Bekoji and about to move another club—she’s also been doing well in competitions.

Tribeca: What's the craziest thing that happened during production?

Jerry Rothwell: On one shoot, our gift to the athletes of Holeta for filming there was three goats. I’ve never had to submit an expenses receipt like the one below to a production company before.

Tribeca: What's your advice for aspiring filmmakers? Is there one particular thing you learned?

Jerry Rothwell: Don’t hang around waiting for someone to ask you to make a film—start making films in whatever form you can. Be prepared to change your ideas when events point you in different directions from those you expected; in documentary a script can be a hindrance, not a help. Ground your films in your own interpretation of what you’ve seen, and approach them with honesty: your thinking is as important as your style.

Tribeca: After your exceptional Donor Unknown at TFF 2011, what are you most looking forward upon returning to Tribeca?

Jerry Rothwell: Sharing the film with New York audiences, who are the most lively and vocal in the world!

Tribeca: If you could have dinner with any filmmaker (alive or dead), who would it be?

Jerry Rothwell: You asked me this question last year. It’s still Werner Herzog, but I’ll leave the long spoon behind this time.

Tribeca: What’s your favorite New York movie?

Jerry Rothwell: Do The Right Thing.

Tribeca: What makes Town of Runners a Tribeca must-see?

Jerry Rothwell: It’s an intimate insight into an Ethiopia we never usually see, taking us into the homes, families and dreams of the young athletes we may one day see winning at the Olympics. In an Olympics year, it gives us a deeper view of what the sport is all about.


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