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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
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.
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.
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.