Town of Runners: An Update From the Filmmaker

By Jerry Rothwell, director of Town of Runners
Posted on June 16, 2012

Town of Runners is a documentary about Ethiopian runners who hope to change their lives by becoming professional athletes. The film is set in Bekoji, Ethiopia, a small remote town in the Southern Highlands known for producing some of the world's greatest runners, largely due to the dedication of Coach Sentayehu Eshetu. The ITVS-funded documentary by Jerry Rothwell premieres Sunday, June 17 on Global Voices on the WORLD Channel.


Filmmaker Jerry Rothwell in Bekoji

We finished shooting Town of Runners during Spring 2011 and in November of that year, I took a rough cut of the film back to Ethiopia to view it with Coach Sentayehu, Hawii, Alemi, Biruk, and their families. For Alemi’s mother, it was the first time she’d seen her daughter run, and the film gave Hawii’s family a sense of the struggles she’d had over the past few years in the running clubs. Since the film ended, Hawii’s second club, Assela, had managed to find its way out of its financial difficulties. Hawii rejoined it, regained her fitness, and has been competing and doing well in races across the Oromia region. 

Alemi, meanwhile, decided she wanted to leave her club in Holeta and return home to Bekoji once her two-year contract was up.  She came home to live with her parents and began training once again with Coach Sentayehu. It was a chance for her to pick up her education after a two-year break. Bethlehem (Betty) and Freya, the two girls who went with Hawii to the club in Woliso, finally ran away and returned to Bekoji.  By the time they left, they said 50 of the club’s 52 athletes had done the same due to the lack of facilities and training. Meanwhile, Bekoji had managed to establish its own club, with the help of the Ethiopian Athletics Federation and Betty won a place there. Freya has given up athletics and has returned to school in Bekoji.

Biruk is still living in Bekoji. He has now finished his education and is currently looking for work.  When some British runners went to Bekoji to train as part of Running Across Borders Visit and Train program, Biruk worked as their guide and training partner.

Children in Bekoji standing in line being instructed by Coach Sentayehu

Coach Sentayehu came to the UK with the film during its theatrical run in April, marking his first time out of Ethiopia and a chance to visit and build partnerships with UK athletics clubs, universities, and schools. Together with Coach Sentayehu, we’ve developed an outreach program to support the training of assistant coaches in Bekoji, offering athletes a career beyond their own running. 

Through this unique program, Coach Sentayehu will oversee a group of athletes who will become part of Running Across Borders’ program to support Bekoji’s athletics. This will enable runners to better develop their careers in their hometowns, while continuing their education and living with their families. The program also supports the runners to travel to competitions, both in Ethiopia and abroad. Coach Sentayehu is eager to build a legacy for his work in Bekoji by helping develop coaching skills in younger athletes as an option for those who will not be able to make it as elite runners.

Girl athletes sitting outside their accommodation in Woliso running club, Ethiopia

At least three runners from Bekoji will be running in the Olympics in London 2012. Kenenisa Bekele and Tirunesh Dibaba will be defending their Olympic titles in the 5000m and 10,000m, while Tirunesh’s sister, Genzebe Dibaba, will be running the 1500m. Earlier this year, Ganzebe became the world indoor champion and looks on form to follow in her sister’s footsteps to an Olympic medal. No doubt the town will be out in force at the local DSTV bar to cheer them on. Town of Runners opened the Addis Ababa Film Festival, the largest independent documentary cinema festival in Africa, in May 2012 and Hawii, Biruk, and Betty were there to introduce the film with producer Dan Demissie.


Town of Runners will premiere as part of the Global Voices series on the WORLD Channel, Sunday, June 17 at 10 p.m. (check local listings). Starting June 18, the documentary will be available to view in entirety online via PBS Video (for a limited time only).


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