Prior to becoming a documentary filmmaker, “Town of Runners” director Jerry Rothwell trained briefly in news before working for 15 years as a ‘community video artist,’ which enabled him to explore “people’s authorship of their own stories” and achieve “a deeper intimacy with its subjects over a longer period of time.” He credits that work for shaping him as a documentary director. “Town of Runners” marks his fourth feature.
“Based on my earlier experience as a community filmmaker, I try to work closely with the subjects of my films about what their story means and how to tell it, but I also aim to put that story in a context that’s wider than the individual and gets us thinking about our own lives. The power to interpret other people’s stories is an ethical minefield, but I think that the role of the witness or storyteller is a very important one.”
What it’s about: In an Ethiopian town which has produced many of the world’s greatest runners, two girls pursue their dream of becoming athletes.
Director Rothwell says: “The film is set in Bekoji, a town in the Ethiopian southern highlands, which is home to world and Olympic champions Tirunesh Dibaba, Kenenisa Bekele, Fatuma Roba and Derartu Tulu.
“I was interested in how the town’s success affected the ambitions of its young people, and the film follows two of them – Hawii and Alemi – as they try to become runners. It’s narrated by their friend Biruk, who runs a kiosk on the main road into town, and in his words ‘sees everything that comes and goes’.
“Like many places in rural Africa, Bekoji is going through a rapid modernization – so it’s not only a film about running but about being a teenager in a country that is in transition.
On the challenges: “I’ve never before worked on a film which is entirely in another language. There are two languages in the film: Amharic and Oromo (the language of the Oromia region where the film is shot).
“Working through translation mean that some conversations had to go from English to Amharic to Oromo and back again for each beat of the exchange – sometimes it’s hard to establish intimacy or a flow with that barrier. Subtitling and translating rushes also brings another layer of technical issues – I reckon it doubles your editing time!“
What would you like Tribeca audiences to come away with? “I hope audiences 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.“
On the film’s inspirations: “We wanted to make a film that escaped the two typical storylines that the media tells about Ethiopia – of the helpless famine victim or the singular triumph over adversity. So our inspiration was from films which managed to capture the everyday in a cinematic way. With the film’s editor, Alan Mackay, we watched and loved Sleep Furiously, Etre et Avoir and Forest of Bliss, which between them capture the rhythms of worlds where the rural and the modern collide – and use sound in really interesting ways.“
Future projects: “I’m working on a film about the founders of Greenpeace, provisionally called ‘How To Change The World,’ and a beginning development of a project about children’s writing.”
Indiewire invited Tribeca Film Festival directors to tell us about their films, including what inspired them, the challenges they faced and what they’re doing next. We’ll be publishing their responses leading up to the 2012 festival.
Keep checking HERE every day up to the launch for the latest profiles.