Who knew the world capital of running was the small rural village of Bekoji, Ethiopia? In Town of Runners, documentarian Jerry Rothwell takes us to this place, where the roads are made of mud, where phones have yet to be introduced, and where children know their only chance at a future outside Bekoji is through running.
It's not an exaggeration, either. The education system is in shambles, and most families farm just enough to keep food on the table. Rothwell follows two Bekoji teens, Hawii and Alemi, over four years while they try to make their running dreams come true. Hawii, it seems initially, is the more promising athlete, but when both young girls are selected to leave their village and join different regional running clubs, their fortunes turn on a dime. Alemi thrives at her running club, where she's treated well and given the chance to try longer distances for the first time. Hawii, on the other hand, goes to a place without accommodations and where her raw talent is never given the proper chance to develop. She's injured, miserable, and has absolutely no one to turn to.
By focusing on these two young women, Rothwell is able to make a relatively hopeful documentary, though it's an unsatisfying one because so many questions go unanswered. We can fill in the blanks as to why these running clubs are so down-and-out, but Rothwell is in a powerful position. Early in the film, the presence of him and his crew means an incorrect decision at one of Hawii's races is reversed. Only once do we see an interview with a man or woman at one of these clubs. It's a bit frustrating because as a viewer, you develop a genuine connection to these two girls, so you want Rothwell to hold someone's feet to the fire. It doesn't really happen.
The film's other big mistake is framing Hawii's and Alemi's stories around the observations of a young man in Bekoji. He operates a stall that sells random household goods and knickknacks, and he occasionally offers a thought about life in Bekoji from the perspective of someone outside the world of running. Unfortunately, he doesn't offer anything that contributes to the film's major themes or messages, but he's prominent enough in the film that his inclusion is becomes distracting, almost frustrating.
There are some pleasant, and so not-so-pleasant, glimpses into a culture foreign to us in more ways than one, but Town of Runners doesn't offer much else, even to a runner like myself. The subject is interesting, but the angle by which it's presented gives the film an incomplete and falsely optimistic feeling.