“Let me show you what we are selling in this shop,” says young Biruk Fikadu. The camera turns from what he sees from his family-owned kiosk — dirt roads, sheep, a pedestrian or two — to inside, where he points out the matchboxes, biscuits, and avocado oil available for purchase. But this tour of items is just the start: what Biruk most wants is to tell you the story of his town, Bekoji, Ethiopia (pop 18,000), a Town of Runners, as the title of Jerry Rothwell’s film has it.
Bekloi, it happens, has produced an unusual number of champion long distance runners, including Olympic gold medalist Derartu Tulu. For years, these runners have been trained by Sentayehu Eshetu. The film, premiering on PBS’ Global Voices on 17 June, follows two of his latest protégés, Hawii Megersa and Alemi Tsegaye, two talented teenagers who hope running will help them find a way out of poverty and onto a world stage. Both girls are moved by the runners who have come before them, in particular, Tirunesh Dibaba. “I saw her on TV,” says Hawii, “It motivated me to start running,” says 14-year-old Hawii and Alemi echoes her friend, “I thought I could run like her.”
The film traces their hard work toward that end, the hours they spend training, their neighbors’ weeks of work to build a proper track, once Derartu Tulu points out the need. “My dream for this track is that in the future, it’s brought up to international standards,” he says, “Everyone in this town runs. They’ll all be able to make use of it.” If such aspirations are grand, the film maintains a local, even personal perspective, beginning with the frame provided by Biruk, and carrying over to some frankly thrilling sequences where the two girls compete in races (during which the camera keeps close on their faces, in a series of breathtaking long-lens shots). You also see their disappointments, as or are assigned to training camps (clubs), apart from Tulu and one another, their positions apparently based more on their family backgrounds as their demonstrated talents. The differences in circumstances can be devastating, owing to improper nutrition, training facilities, even sleeping quarters. The road, as they say, is increasingly difficult, even for these gifted athletes, so encouraged by their community.