Director Jerry Rothwell’s beautifully made 86-minute documentary, Town of Runners, featured in this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, instantly grabs the attention of viewers with its quiet message of hope in Ethiopia’s new generation.

In the past, Rothwell has helped to make films about arts, mental health, and education for TV, inclusive of Channel 4’s Art Show series and a few programs for BBC and Carlton. He recently began directing full-length documentary features, including Heavy Load, about a rock band with a mentally disabled band member, and Deep Water, about an ill-fated voyage in the 1968 round world yacht race, both of which won awards. Though Rothwell did not receive any accolades for Town of Runners at the Tribeca Film Festival this year, he won Best Online Feature last year for Donor Unknown, a documentary about a sperm donor and his many offspring.

In his latest project, the innovative filmmaker introduces viewers to the peaceful, rural town of Bekoji in central Ethiopia where the majority of its inhabitants make a hard living as farmers. To emphasize the peacefulness of this place, Rothwell rightly chose the lilting music of legendary jazz musician Mulatu Astatke to play in the background, creating an improbably tranquil atmosphere that transpires throughout the entire film.

Aside from the seasonal crops that feed the town as well as the outlying regions of Ethiopia, this small breadbasket produces an astounding number of Olympic gold medal runners. As we soon find out from the film, the 29-year-old Kenenisa Bekele (holds the men’s 5,000 meter and 10,000 meter world record), Tirunesh Dibaba, 26, (holds the women’s outdoor 5,000 meter world record), Derartu Tulu, 40, (first African woman to win an Olympic gold medal) and Fatuma Roba, 38, (won an Olympic gold medal for the women’s marathon and won the Boston Marathon three times in a row), all call Bekoji home.

Storytelling and cinematography are two things that this film does strikingly well, capturing the lush rolling hills of Bekoji while intimately touching upon details of daily life. Town of Runners is a new type of documentary for Rothwell since his peaceful setting of Bekoji is surrounded by Africa’s messy politics. However, he prefers to stick to a somewhat simpler story (or, as we perhaps find out, decidedly more complicated): the hopes and dreams of two teenage runners, Hawii and Alemi, who train along with a group of other young individuals.

Over the span of three years, Rothwell masterfully brings out the quiet determination of his film’s two teenage heroines. Throughout their ups and downs, the camera plays an unassuming observer in the girls’ lives. In it, they confide their fear of leaving their families in order to accomplish their athletic goals, and their frustrations with the inadequacies of the government-sponsored athletic training centers that they eventually move to. By the end, Rothwell captures the personalities of the two girls so strikingly well, the viewer might find themselves able to guess their mood before they even begin speaking (in Amharic, no less).

Rothwell aptly picks out other local residents that help his viewers to more comfortably settle into Bekoji’s culture of running. One such character is the inspiring but ever-realistic Coach Sentayehu, who trained Tulu before she became an Olympic champion.

“In our town, the kids get up very early to run, and their parents aren’t surprised,” Coach Sentayehu jokes. “In another town they would ask, ‘Have you all gone mad?’”

As the film progresses, Rothwell carefully peels back cultural layers to show us that for these kids, it’s more than just getting up early to run; it’s about creating a brighter future than the one your parents ended up with. Hawii’s father died when she was young, and she now lives with her mother and sisters who farm seeds and other produce to survive. Since her family lives outside of the city, Alemi rents a small room in Bekoji during the week, posters of runners covering the walls, in order to go to school and train with the running group. For Hawii, Alemi, and their families, running is a way out of backbreaking work and poverty.

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The opening shot is testament to Rothwell’s skill as a cinematographer. The film begins with Hawii, dressed in bright athletic clothes, running past grass huts and farmers hauling carts of hay. The camera follows Hawii along the road, capturing the simultaneous beauty of her long-legged gait and the natural beauty of the landscape. In the background plays the announcer’s voice during Dibaba’s winning race at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, placing poignant emphasis on Ethiopia’s hope for a new, successful generation.

“Sometimes it seems this town is crazy about running,” says Biruk, the film’s 15-year-old narrator. “In Ethiopia, we need to work hard to get out of poverty, and running is work.”

However, the film is not without its faults; Biruk, who also aspires to become a successful runner, remains a shadowy, undeveloped character. We see him selling goods at his family’s kiosk and hear his observations of life in Bekoji, but his personal story is never fully revealed. At one point, his 12-year-old self confesses to the camera that he hopes to become a doctor; later, we find out that he didn’t pass his examinations and will have to repeat a grade, if he hopes to reach his goal. Though Biruk’s voice stays with us as narrator for Alemi and Hawii, Rothwell leaves Biruk’s story abruptly, leaving the viewer wanting to find out more.

Throughout, the filmmaker keeps his Western audience in mind, knowing that most have no experience with such devastating socioeconomic hardship. The film stays true to its underlying theme, which is something that all viewers can relate to: finding the strength to reach your lifelong dreams. When Hawii and Alemi leave home for the first time to go to their respective training centers, many viewers will find themselves being reminded of the first time they left home and the conflicted paradoxical feeling of wanting to stay forever, but knowing that one’s dreams are taking you somewhere else.

Hawii learns that this goal is much harder to attain than she originally expected: the training center she moves to has rooms with no ceilings, runs out of food after a few months, and does not have a rigorous training program for its young athletes. Through Hawii’s and Alemi’s direct experiences, Rothwell punches pinholes in this seemingly bright initiative, showing that Ethiopia still has a long way to go in its support of its rising generation.

However, at heart, Rothwell loves a good story. The politics behind Ethiopia’s athletic training centers act as shadows cast across the lives of his young heroines, but the film almost stubbornly sticks to the story of two girls, never willing to go in depth into Ethiopia’s massive social and political problems. In a way, this approach is somewhat refreshing, giving us a break from the highly one-sided politically-focused documentaries of late, like Waiting for Superman or Capitalism: a Love Story. The film acknowledges that these problems exist, but never goes further than that.

The true beauty of Town of Runners lies beyond politics, in its unrelenting belief in Ethiopia’s newest generation, to whom the uphill battle is just part of the race, and it doesn’t scare them, much.

Rating: 4 out of 4

“Town of Runners” will be on view online for free through April 29 as part of the Tribeca (Online) Film Festival. For more information visit the following Web site:

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