Fast Times in Ethiopia

Docudrama reconstructs the life of African runner

The peerless Ethiopian distance runner Haile Gebrselassie is a tiny man--5-foot-3 and barely 115 pounds--but in his native country, his heroism looms large. Since 1994 he has set 15 world records at five different distances, and at the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, he outdueled a trio of favored Kenyans to win the gold medal at 10,000 meters--a triumph regarded throughout Ethiopia as life-changing.

In an inspirational "docudrama" called Endurance, British filmmaker Leslie Woodhead tells the story--part of it, anyway--of how this plucky, relentless striver, the eighth of 10 children, rose from poverty and deprivation on a rural farm to become, in the estimation of Runner's World magazine, "the greatest distance runner of all time." Because mud huts don't usually come equipped with video-cams, there were no home movies chronicling Gebrselassie's youth, which consisted of running six miles each way to school, hauling huge jugs of water three hours a day, plowing behind oxen, threshing wheat, and, when all that was done, putting up with the criticisms of a stern, disapproving father.

Absent original documentation, Woodhead has reconstructed this arduous childhood using nonprofessional actors, including the adult Haile's real-life nephew (Yonas Zergaw) as Haile the boy, and his sister (Shawanness Gebrselassie) as his saintly late mother. This is rarely an ideal arrangement, of course, mixing fiction and nonfiction techniques in the same movie, and Endurance can come off as a slippery, rather uneven mishmash, given its combination of new interviews, "dramatic reenactments" and borrowed TV footage. The acting is marginal, and the poverty shown here has a processed texture that suggests weekly TV.

The things that do shine through are the timeless grace of running and the dauntless spirit of a child and man who kept going for God, family and country--values presumably embraced with equal fervor by Walt Disney Pictures, which is distributing the film. Among the producers, by the way, we find Terrence Malick, director of The Thin Red Line and a filmmaker who obviously chooses his projects carefully.

Were the rather more privileged Olympians of Chariots of Fire still around to witness Gebrselassie's courage in the face of adversity, they might feel compelled to hand their medals over to him. But the main fault with Endurance is that it takes almost no pains to show us how Gebrselassie got to Olympic caliber in the first place. Aside from a tepid reenactment of his first marathon, in Addis Ababa (he finished 99th!), the only race or result Woodhead shows us is the Olympic 10,000 itself--a gorgeously sinuous stretch of footage shot not by Woodhead but by the exemplary American sports documentarian Bud Greenspan. For his purposes, Woodhead has sprinkled pieces of this climactic drama through Endurance. Otherwise, though, Gebrselassie may as well be a bolt from the blue who never broke a tape before or since.

In reality, he set records long before Atlanta, in such far-flung venues as the Netherlands, Zurich and Stuttgart. As early as 1993 he'd become an international star, and that very year the boy who grew up poor in a mud hut brought home to Africa a new Mercedes-Benz and presented it to his wife-to-be, Alem. Woodhead omits these interesting details. In the end, we can only conclude that this rather listless piece of filmmaking does justice to the hardships of Haile Gebrselassie's youth but not the achievements of his career. There are some emotionally stirring moments in Endurance, but you may find yourself yearning for more of the man and his life--not to mention the glory of his speed.

Endurance
Directed by Leslie Woodhead; with Haile Gebrselassie.
Rated

 
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