83 minutes | Rated: G
Opened: Friday, May 21, 1999
Written & directed by Leslie Woodhead
Starring Haile Gebrelassie, Shawanness Gebrelassie, Gebrelassie Bekele, Assefa Gebrelassie, Alem Tellahun & Yonas Zergaw
SMALL SCREEN SHRINKAGE: 40%|
LETTERBOX: IT WOULD HELP
Self-congratulatory recreation docu with an unfortunately uninteresting subject - marathon running. Hardship-to-triumph true story gives one admiration for the featured runner, but doesn't make him interesting.
VIDEO RELEASE: 3/21/2000
Marathon runner's story told in quesitonable docudrama style
A biography that tests the limits of the word "documentary," "Endurance" is 90 percent recreation in the tradition of "America's Most Wanted," but applied to a hero instead of a criminal.
The film -- about Ethiopian long distance runner Haile Gebrselassie, the Tiger Woods of track and field -- is bookended by documentary footage of his record-breaking 10,000-meter win at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics (one of 7 gold metal and 15 world records he holds).
But the bulk of the picture recreates his hardship upbringing in the dry north African veldt in biopic format, with Gebrselassie playing himself through most of the story while relatives play themselves and his dead mother.
Gebrselassie is an interesting guy, if a little uncharismatic, and his life is a classic overcoming adversity parable (poverty on a measure unfamiliar to Americans, long walks to school and the local spring) that is lent an exotic air by its location.
But the surprising technique is a little hard to follow at times and smacks of a TV docudrama (although no network would air something this foreign and unconventional), leading one to wonder what may have been enhanced for dramatic effect.
Furthermore, there are jumps in the recreation of Gebrselassie's childhood that give the film a sloppy feeling of condensed storytelling -- like when he's just running (as he does everywhere) through a field and a coincidental passerby asks him if he wants a coach, essentially recruiting him on the spot to train for the Ethiopian Olympic team. It couldn't have really happened that way, could it?
The film occasionally flashes on the screen nuggets of information that serve as chapter cards -- "He placed 99th in his first marathon." "Two years of hard training." "1,000 others with the same dream." Sometimes it does this in quick succession and skips over important anecdotal framework. In fact, the narrative jumps from his early training to the Olympic climax without giving the audience any feeling for how he improved over those two years and how he emerged as one of the greatest contenders in his sport.
Written (although I'm not sure what that means here) and directed by English documentary maker Leslie Woodhead, "Endurance" is handsome, but doesn't shy away from harsh and detailed realities of Gebrselassie's early life. He owns no shoes or socks until his chance meeting with his coach, he walks several hours every day to fetch water in gas cans strapped to burros and flies often crawl on actors (characters?) faces, like they do on kids in famine charity ads on TV.
But while it is a little inspiring, the movie doesn't have enough punch to keep an audience interested in something as monotonous as marathon running, despite its best attempts to enhance many scenes with excessive Foley effects (sheep bay and roosters crow excessively on his father's sparsely populated farm) and with triumphant tribal music that pulses on the soundtrack any time Gebrselassie breaks into even a brisk walk.