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Documentary producer Dan Demissie visits Trinity

October 29, 2013

Maria Hagan interviews Dan Damissie and Biruk Fikadu about the documentary Town of Runners
Maria Hagan | Contributing Writer

Dan Demissie and Jerry Rothwell’s thought-provoking documentary Town of Runners looks at Ethiopian society in an unconventional and celebratory way. Producer Dan visited Trinity last week as part of the Suas 8×8 Film Festival. He led a seminar on documentary-making as well as a Q&A with Tv3 presenter Tommy Martin following the screening of the film in the Samuel Beckett Theatre. He was accompanied by Biruk Fikadu, the narrative voice of the film who flew over to Dublin especially for the event.

I meet Dan and Biruk in a small Dublin coffee shop, eager to delve further into their story. I am delighted at how glad they are to share their experiences with me. ‘I’d never been to Ethiopia before we made the film’, Dan reveals. He is of Ethiopian descent himself and was eager to reconnect with his family and culture. Throughout our discussions Dan switches from English to Amharic with ease, translating pieces of the conversation between Biruk and myself. I sit back and enjoy the soft-sounding language. Dan grew up in England so I am surprised by his fluency. He shrugs humbly as he tells me, ‘I have always had it spoken around me, but would answer back in English. When I started the project, it was the perfect opportunity for me to learn to speak the language properly’.

‘It was hard not to get involved,’ Dan emphasises, ‘especially when one of the girls faced particularly difficult conditions in the running club that she progressed to’
Dan explains that he wishes to subvert the way in which Ethiopia is generally represented. ‘The image of the country that a lot of people have seen in the media is mainly about famine and war,’ he tells me, ‘these are issues that can’t be ignored, but we wanted to try and show a fuller picture of what the situation is really like’. Indeed, rather than solely focusing on the trials and tribulations faced by the East African country, Town of Runners celebrates the people’s repeated prowess in athletics championships worldwide. The film focuses on the rural town of Bekoji, located in central Ethiopia and home to 16,000 inhabitants. Runners from the town have won an exceptional eight Olympic gold medals, 32 World Championships, and hold 10 World Records.

Dan reveals that it was whilst undertaking an internship that he pitched his idea for the documentary to director Jerry Rothwell. Before long the idea turned into a four-year project framed by the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and last year’s London Games. ‘I heard about Bekoji and the wonderful coach Sentayehu Eshetu and thought that it would be a good thing to make a film about’, he says.

The film follows the evolution of two girls’ running careers. ‘Their friendship is one of the reasons that we chose them as our main focus,’ Dan explains. Hawii and Alemii’s stories are skilfully interwoven: they begin training and competing together but their careers develop separately. As the documentary progresses, we get to know the girls’ family lives and the obstacles that they face are revealed. For example, the difficulties of juggling sport, making a living and pursuing an education. Images of hard-working families ploughing the land remind us that the girls’ aspirations to success are challenged by everyday life. ‘It was hard not to get involved,’ Dan emphasises, ‘especially when one of the girls faced particularly difficult conditions in the running club that she progressed to’. It is clear that Dan and his team became very close to the community of Bekoji: he describes how their presence was remarkably well accepted by the locals. From their jokes and friendly interactions it is evident that a brotherly relationship has developed between Dan and Biruk.

The film is not just emotionally engaging, but beautifully shot and aesthetically impressive. It is divided into sequences following seasonal change with visually compelling images of bright red soil, dense green crops and enthusiastic groups of runners. The film also broaches the subject of development, most notably that brought about by the Chinese in the area. The opening images of the documentary show dirt roads which gradually develop into a finished highway linking Bekoji to Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital. This sense of community development is enhanced by Biruk who watches as life in the town evolves. Dan explains, ‘We decided to have Biruk narrate the film in the native language, Amharic, rather than use a voice-over in English to authentically reproduce the tone and colour of Bekoji’s story’.

Dan’s plans for the future are bright, he explains his next project in association with the 2013 TED Prize winner Sugata Mitra: ‘The idea is to explore Mitra’s ‘School in the Cloud’ concept with underprivileged children in India who have very limited access to education’. As for Biruk, he tells me how life has changed since the release of Town of Runners. He smiles as he explains that he has been involved in a further program with CNN (amongst others), and is frequently recognised by visitors to Bekoji whom he gladly shows around the town. When I ask Biruk if his visit to Ireland has interrupted his training pattern he tells me that it hasn’t, that he is on a rest week. He adds enthusiastically that he’s ready to get back to his coach and to his running. Biruk himself won’t be around for it, but with the Dublin Marathon coming up next Monday this film is particularly relevant: Town of Runners and the athletes of Bekoji are an encouragement to us all to pull on those shorts, grab those trainers, and finally hit that track.

For more information check out the film’s website, www.townofrunners.com.

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