Endurance

Endurance is The Documentary That Won’t End about the Man Who Won’t Stop Running. The subject of the film is Ethiopian championship distance runner Haile Gebreselassie (played by himself). The subtitle is: "In the heart of a champion is the courage to endure." A Disney presentation, Endurance is mildly interesting but very slow. Gebreselassie is like the Ethiopian Energizer Bunny. He runs and runs and runs…

Less a documentary than an authorized biography, Endurance‘s aim is to glorify, not edify. The producers say: "(Our idea was to) create a tribute to both Olympian aspiration and East African distance running. It would take the form of a film glorifying one contemporary athlete and his heroic feat by portraying the way of life that produced him.

So we see, tangentially, the poverty out of which Gebreselassie has risen, but it doesn’t look so bad. Everyone seems happy. We see a handsome actor playing the young Gebreselassie (Yonas Zergaw), who runs everywhere – to the market, to the fields, to play with his friends. He runs at regular speed and in slow motion, accompanied by an incessant huffing and puffing noise in the soundtrack. The first time this effect is used, as young Haile runs with the dry East African countryside behind him and wonderful Ethiopian music humming underneath, we feel lifted, as if we are being shown something exotic and new. But by the third and sixth and tenth time we start to get tired ourselves. We need a breather from all this running. A little story line would be nice, perhaps something about Haile or his father or mother or his nine brothers and sisters or their village. Oops, there Haile goes again. More huffing. More puffing.

The film also suffers from the inexplicable decision to tip all the story lines in advance by using dialogue boards, like those in a silent movie. When his mother gets sick, the screen reads: "To the hospital." When Haile is training in the capital, Addis Ababa, the screen reads: "1000 others with the same dream." Perhaps the film was meant to be for young audiences, but to this adult the written plot explanations were annoying.

There are interesting moments. We get to watch some of the ceremonies of the Coptic Christian church. The liturgical chanting sounds Arabic, which shouldn’t be surprising in East Africa, and the ornate crosses and prelates in colorful robes would be perfectly at home in Russian Orthodoxy.

Similarly the depiction of everyday Ethiopian life makes us see how wide a gulf there was between Gebreselassie’s upbringing and his eventual international success. It is fascinating to see young Haile’s mother baking griddle cakes inside their mud home, as well as the entire village praying under a huge monkey tree, not so different from a Baptist camp meeting in rural America. Also, the footage from Gebreselassie’s 10,000 meter victory in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics is colorful and exciting.

Unfortunately these moments are few and far between. How he got from Addis Ababa to the Olympics remains a complete mystery. As a result Endurance is occasionally interesting, but the real subject of the film, Ethiopia’s hero Haile Gebreselassie, remains unrevealed and unexplained. We leave the film having learned very little, other than that this exceptional long distance runner is certainly quite an athlete.

– DAK

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