I’ve been feeling a bit jaded about sports movies lately, and the paint-by-numbers 12 Mighty Orphans didn’t improve my mood one bit. Fortunately, there’s always another movie to screen, and Jan Philipp Weyl’s Running Against the Wind proved to be exactly the kind of palate cleanser I needed. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s an interesting one that does more than reshuffle the same old clichés in service of a story you’ve heard many times already.
The story of Running Against the Wind is fictional (with a screenplay by Weyl and Michael Wogh), but it’s told so simply that it can feel like a documentary. Two boys in rural Ethiopia, growing up in poverty but sustained by their friendship and their dreams, find different paths to adulthood. Abdi (Ferhane Beker as a child, Ashenafi Nigusu as a young adult), a shy rules follower, discovers he has a talent for running, while Solomon (Alamudin Abduselam as a child, Mikias Wolde as a young adult), who likes to get into a bit of trouble, learns after a chance encounter with a visiting European that he has an eye for photography.
The film’s depiction of their early years emphasizes the wide open spaces of the Ethiopian countryside, beautifully by cinematographer Mateusz Smolka and fitted with an appropriate soundtrack by Teddy Mak and Stefan Postavka, where these boys run free and revel in every new experience. When Solomon is orphaned, he moves into Abdi’s home, accepted as an “other brother,” but he can’t settle into a simple life as a herder, so he steals a camera and finds his way to Addis Ababa.
Still a child, Solomon learns to survive on the streets with a band of similarly situated children, while Abdi remains at home and trains as a runner, hoping to follow in the footsteps of national hero Haile Gebrselassie (who makes an appearance in the film). As an adult, Solomon lives with his wife and baby in a shantytown, but retains his sweetness. Unfortunately, it’s not so easy to stay out of trouble when you’re living on the fringes of society, and the grimmer aspects of Solomon’s life are contrasted with idyllic training sequences featuring the young adult Abdi, who is selected by coach Negussie Mariam (Genene Alemu) to train at a center for elite athletes in, of course, Addis Ababa. You can be sure these two will meet again, and they do.
Running Against the Wind sags in the second half, particularly when following the adult Solomon’s story. Watching a talented young man fall into (or be dragged into) a self-destructive life is just depressing, no matter the specific details of the story, and all the more so when it’s clear that the character had few to no better alternatives. A good training or racing montage, on the other hand, can always lift the spirits, and the straightforward nature of running (the point is to cross the finish line first, and everyone can see who does so) makes the sport inherently film-friendly.
Running Against the Wind was Ethiopia’s submission for Best International Feature Film at the 2020 Academy Awards, which it didn’t win (Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite took that honor). It’s a film well worth seeing, for its inspiring story, beautiful cinematography and soundtrack, and above all for its straightforward depiction of sport, and life, in a context quite different from that of the United States. | Sarah Boslaugh
Running against the Wind is available for streaming beginning July 9 from Samuel Goldwyn Films.