• Tow_1
Film

Director Jerry Rothwell on Ethiopia's very small town that's big on producing world-class runners

Posted by Alex Moshakis,

On August 15 2008, at the Beijing Olympics, Ethiopian long distance runner Tirunesh Dibaba won 10,000 metre gold. A week later she won the 5,000 metres, too. Until then no woman had won both races at the same Games, and only one woman had ever run the 10,000 metres faster. Dibaba’s achievement was undoubtedly huge – how many people win one Olympic medal, let alone two? – but her triumph was noteworthy for another reason: the now-26-year-old athlete was born in Bekoji, a rural Ethiopian town from which seven other Olympic medalists have also come running.

“A lot of people say Bekoji’s success is down to genetics or the altitude,” director Jerry Rothwell says, “but that doesn’t explain why the town five miles down the road doesn’t also produce world-class long distance runners!” Instead the reason is the town’s inspirational coaching figure, as Rothwell notes. “You need someone who is able to capitalise on the interest of young runners, and who is able to push that interest in the right direction. The inspirational figure in Bekoji is coach Sentayehu Eshetu, who trained Derartu Tulu and Dibaba, and who for years has worked with young runners.”

“A lot of people say Bekoji’s success is down to genetics or the altitude, but that doesn’t explain why the town five miles down the road doesn’t also produce world-class long distance runners!”

Jerry Rothwell

Sentayehu – quietly driven, often very funny – stands proudly at the heart of Rothwell’s Town of Runners, a warm feature documentary that follows two young Bekoji-born runners on the lookout for athletic stardom. Set against a backdrop of technological progression – “When we arrived electricity was sporadic, by the time we finished there was satellite television in every hotel room” – Rothwell reveals the hardship of life in a small Ethiopian town, and the optimism with which its residents seek possible escape.

“Running is a way to a distant life,” he explains. “Bekoji is a very rural town in which most people’s life patterns are pretty established. If you’re a boy you’ll work in agriculture. If you’re a girl you’ll probably get married very young, at 12 or 13-years-old. Athletics offers the chance at a completely different life – the possibility of being on a world stage, but also wealth. That’s primarily what inspires them.”

The potential for cliche looms throughout, but Rothwell’s treatment here is subtle, his methods honest. Neither of the runners are particularly successful, neither fail (in fact the only semblance of failure comes from the film’s narrator, a young shopkeeper named Biruk lacking in athletic talent, but even he seems to have a future now his town is hooked up to the internet). Instead both runners carry on – to clubs in different parts of the country, to athletic meets in Addis Ababa, in one instance back to Bekoji – continuously searching for the path that might lead to better things. Just like everyone else from their town. Just like all of us in fact.

Town of Runners is released on April 20.

  • Tow_3

    Bekoji residents involved in early morning training

  • Tow_2

    Coach Sentayehu Eshetu

  • Tow_4

    Hawii, one of the runners on whom Town of Runners focusses

Portrait8

Posted by Alex Moshakis

Alex originally joined It’s Nice That as a designer but moved into editorial and oversaw the It’s Nice That magazine from Issue Six (July 2011) to Issue Eight (March 2012) before moving on that summer.

Most Recent: Film View Archive

  1. Tim-brown-int-list

    As a one-time news journalist (albeit at a very low level) I have a real affinity for reportage illustrators. George Butler is one of the best around and this new film by Tim Brown which follows him on a three-week trip to Afghanistan provides a great insight into his finely-honed talents. On his first trip to the war-torn country George was embedded with British troops, but he hungered to draw the locals whose lives had been so irrevocably changed over recent years. “I was always aware that over the walls there were millions of people getting on with their lives,” he says.

  2. Liamsaintpierre-dominicwilcox-int-list

    We have often spoken about the difficulties of films profiling creative figures and the disappointment when they fall back on familiar and formulaic tropes. This film from Liam Saint Pierre though shows how it should be done. It helps of course that his subject – the artist and designer Dominic Wilcox – is so interesting and directs his razor-sharp creative mind into all manner of silly inventions. “Let’s do the ridiculous and by doing the ridiculous something else might come of it,” says Dominic at one point in a line that could be his mantra.

  3. Annaginsburg-int-list

    I can imagine that pitching for music videos can be a really interesting process: “Well, we’re going to dress her up in an outfit made of dog treats and hot dog sausages, and have her run around in an underground carpark with two massive Alsatians.”

  4. Marianna-simnett_-'blood'-2015.-produced-as-part-of-the-jerwood-fvu-awards-2015_-what-will-they-see-of-me-(7)-int

    People crawling into a huge pair of nostrils, middle-aged virgins and the power-play of a hotel room feature in some very strange but utterly captivating video works from Lucy Clout and Marianna Simnett, who scooped the 2015 Jerwood/Film and Video Umbrella Award.

  5. Photoshop-shot-3-int_copy

    Adobe Photoshop has turned 25 – happy belated birthday Photoshop! To celebrate this momentous occasion, CreativeLive, who run live software training workshops online, asked eight Photoshop experts to try out the 1.0 version. Time has flown by, and Photoshop 1.0 looks ridiculous. It’s kind of like MS Paint and is akin watching a child or a grandparent trying to even switch on a computer, but backwards. Who knew that watching people try to add drop shadows to bacon and freaking out not being able to “undo” could be so entertaining.

  6. Rr-oakland-home-int

    Produced by Levi’s Skateboarding, director Ryan Reichenfeld’s Skateboarding in Oakland follows a group of friends who skate around Oakland and its renewed Town Park Skate Park. The film focusses on the voices of Lemuel West and Terrell Newell, who have lost both friends and family often down to the gang culture that thrives in Oakland and its suburbs. They and their friends, having grown up under similar circumstances, see their skate community as a relief from this and an opportunity to extract themselves from potentially destructive lifestyles. Ryan describes Skateboarding in Oakland as “not a story about surviving tough circumstances in a harsh environment, [but] a story about perspective and thriving in the face of it all.”

  7. Bob-benedict-cock-robin-int-lis

    I don’t know what I was expecting when I sat down to watch Cock Robin, the first film by newly-formed direction duo BobBenedict to see the light, but it certainly wasn’t the intense wave of emotion, humour, and the slick, charismatic production that hit me when I pressed play. The pair, formed of photographer Benedict Morgan (who was responsible for this astounding project) and production designer Sean Hogan (or Bob), re-worked the classic nursery rhyme Who Killed Cock Robin? with a perfectly briefed cast of actors. What’s more, the lot was filmed at the Mansfield Indoor Bowling Club, a distinctly familiar and achingly kitsch location which has since sadly made way for a luxury housing development. The setting absolutely makes the film, elevating the idea to the realm of a finely-polished and well-loved 1970s British TV show rather than a short film.

  8. Skrillex-doompy-poomp-int-list

    Fleur & Manu’s latest video for everyone’s favourite ex-goth Skrillex is a bit of a repetitive tale. It takes the form of a mulleted dropout failing to get a loan from his bank, and then having to relive the painful experience again and again, Groundhog Day-style until he loses his shit completely and the whole thing descends into a cross-dressing, semi-naked musical. There are some great hairy backs thrown into the mix too. With a synopsis like that how could you resist?

  9. Daniel-swan-django-django-list

    Four years after first discovering Daniel Swan’s website he’s still not bothered to put any work on it. There’s just a 3D-rendered glittery keyring that bears his name and serves as his calling card. He’s a confident man! Still, when you’re producing work as good as Daniel, you can afford to be confident. Last time we had him up on the site he had collaborated with David Rudnick on an incredible desert apocalypse for RL Grime, and this latest offering for Django Django is no less impressive.

  10. Fyi-still-11-int_copy

    In response to a “critical graphic design” brief from their tutor at Central Saint Martins, graphic design students Ellen Mercer and Lucy Streule spliced together a tonne of clips and heartfelt scenes where movie characters let each other know, “FYI I’m a graphic designer.”

  11. Crane-oscars-int-list

    There’s always a frenzy of opinions around the Oscars, as Michael Hogan Tweeted this morning: “It’s all happening over on the #oscars hashtag, if you’re interested in people who can’t type properly quacking on about film awards.” But amid all the polarised bickering and the dress-sense-rating bitchiness, it’s nice to remember the sheer amount of skill and craft that went into all the nominated films. Crane.tv has produced an interesting series which focuses on the lesser-appreciated talents who make the movie industry what it is, the most impressive of which focuses on the Whiplash sound mixer Thomas Curley. He got the nod from the Academy this year and it’s super interesting to hear him talk about the challenges of working on a film which is all about drumming, and so sound is critically important to the overall artistic effect.

  12. Farmleague-geoffmcfetridge-int-list

    We’re always interested in what Los Angeles-based artist and illustrator Geoff McFetridge has been up to. A video of him talking about making a bike sounded especially promising, but a video of him talking about making a “totally absurd” ocean-going bike? Swoon.

  13. List

    Good lord, I haven’t OMGd this hard since…possibly since anything this big and Blur-related happened last time, maybe with the release of Under the Westway, maybe when I sweatily, heart-in-mouthedly (be cool Gosling!) met Damon Albarn in a Foyles book shop. As anyone who’s been on any form of social media in the last hour will know, during a lovely long live Facebook chat with Zane Lowe this morning it was announced that Blur have recorded a new album, called The Magic Whip (their first full-length release in 12 years) revealing the very cool artwork in The Sun of all places this morning.