Many of the world’s greatest runners hail from Bekoji, a small town in rural Ethiopia. Town of Runners follows a group of young athletes from the town as they move from school track to national competition, childhood to adulthood. There are few opportunities for these young people beyond farming; athletics offers the chance of a different life. Despite a background of sharply rising food and fuel prices this film is a portrait of African youth seen not through a lens of poverty but one of ambition and hope.
Long-distance running is a way of life in the Arsi region of Ethiopia. In a country well-acquainted with poverty, famine and war, world-beating athletes are a source of intense pride. Many of the world’s greatest runners hail from Bekoji, a small town in the Southern Highlands, whose athletes won all four gold medals in the long distance track events at the Beijing Olympics – more medals than most industrialised countries. At the heart of Bekoji’s success is the dedication of one man, Sentayehu Eshetu, a former PE teacher in the local primary school. Since his protégé Derartu Tulu became the first African woman to win an Olympic gold, he has trained many of the world’s greatest athletes, including the Beijing winners Tirunesh Dibaba and Kenenisa Bekele. At dawn each morning Sentayehu oversees an enthusiastic group of 200 youngsters through a set of punishing hill runs. Bekoji holds few opportunities beyond subsistence agriculture, particularly for young girls: only a small percentage will move on from primary to secondary education and many will marry as young as 13. Athletics offers the chance of a different life and the wealth it can bring is visible in the only two-storey buildings in town – one each for the Bekeles and the Dibabas. Bekoji lies in the heart of Ethiopia’s main farming region and the young runners’ lives are bound up with the changing circumstances of its agriculture. Each of our characters is positioned differently in the cycle of food production and distribution - and together, their stories show the local human impact of globalised food production. Some of the young athletes struggle to get the nutrition they need to train, and for others, the price of grain or the need for their labour can determine whether or not their parents prioritise their training over their immediate needs for more certain forms of income. Shot over three years, the film follows the fortunes of Sentayehu and three of his young hopefuls, Hawii, Alemii and Million, as they make the journey from the local school track to national competitions, and at the same time begin the transition from teenagers into young adults. Some will progress on to Addis Ababa, where to succeed they must be selected by one of the city’s 40 running clubs and survive in an alien urban environment. Others may see their dream fade as younger runners take their place. Whether they succeed or fail, the film delves into the children’s lives to understand the significance of running for them and the obstacles they face – to create a portrait of African youth seen not through the standard lens of poverty but of ambition and hope.