Going the Distance
By Lee Nichols
JUNE 7, 1999: Ten thousand meters is a pretty long distance to run (6.2 miles, for us Americans). But it's nothing compared to the distance, both figurative and literal, that separates the lives of Haile Gebreselassie and Leslie Woodhead.
The former is, quite simply, the greatest long-distance runner in history. Standing at only 5'3", Gebreselassie isn't someone you would immediately associate with Michael Jordan, but it's a valid comparison -- like Jordan in basketball, Gebreselassie isn't merely a great athlete. He is one who has completely redefined his sport and set a standard that may not be duplicated for decades.
He has risen from rural poverty in Ethiopia and broken world records at every track distance from 2,000 to 10,000 meters. And not just broken them, but completely smashed them, lowering them not by fractions of a second but down to times considered unthinkable even a decade ago.
In 1992, he won the World Junior Championships (for runners under 20 years old) at both 5,000 and 10,000. The next year, at track & field's biennial World Championships, he won the 10,000, a feat he would duplicate in 1995 and '97. He has also won world championships in the wintertime sport of indoor track, at 3,000 meters in 1997 and both 1,500 and 3,000 this year.
And -- most importantly to Leslie Woodhead -- Gebreselassie, at age 23, was the 10,000 champion at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.
Woodhead is also a star, but in the world of documentary filmmaking. The British director, screenwriter, and producer has created films on subjects that are literally all over the map, specializing in documentaries that focus on the daily lives of people in Africa, China, Nepal, and the South Pacific. He spent 20 years shooting five films about the nomadic Mursi people of Ethiopia, which won him the top award of the Royal Anthropological Institute in 1992.
Among his most noted works are films about China's Cultural Revolution and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and since the mid-Eighties he has done a series of docs for HBO, including pieces on the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Lockerbie air disaster, and the Soviet shooting of a Korean passenger jet. He is currently the executive producer of dramatized documentaries for HBO.
His previous work in Ethiopia intersected nicely with his current feature film, Endurance. Released by Walt Disney Pictures in limited locations throughout America -- including Austin -- Endurance is the story of Gebreselassie's life, from plowing fields and raising cattle in the remote village of Asela to international celebrity as the greatest runner from a region of the world famous for dominating the sport.
Woodhead teamed up in 1995 with acclaimed sports documentarian Bud Greenspan, award-winning producer Edward R. Pressman, and The Thin Red Line director Terrence Malick with the intention of doing a documentary about the incredible distance-running traditions of East Africa. It was decided that the film would focus on the winner of the men's 10,000 in Atlanta, whoever he might be -- and he would almost certainly be either Gebreselassie or one of the three Kenyans in the race.
The resulting film is an unusual blend of documentary and not-quite screenplay: The film re-creates Gebreselassie's childhood using Ethiopian villagers, including many of Gebreselassie's relatives, not so much acting as simply re-creating the normal activities of their life for the camera. Gebreselassie plays himself as an adult, and the film finishes with Greenspan's actual footage of the Olympic race.
Speaking to The Austin Chronicle from Holland, Woodhead (who is currently working on a two-hour special for the BBC about the Iran hostage crisis of 1979-81), took a few minutes to chat about Endurance.
Leslie Woodhead: The original idea was not mine, but Terrence Malick's, a fellow citizen of yours in Austin. He has a tremendous passion for long-distance running, and he wanted to make a film on why so many come from East Africa. He had always longed to do that. He found my documentaries on East Africa, and got in touch with me and asked if I'd like to direct it. I hadn't done a cinema documentary before; I'm a TV person.
I'm fascinated by that part of the world, and I'm fascinated by someone who does something we normal humans can't imagine doing. I got hypnotized by that. The main part of my life has been in ethnographic documentaries, and I'm fascinated by the culture that makes so many great runners. That's all I had going into it.
LW: I've often wondered that myself. My film subjects have been as various as Tony Bennett and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and East African cattle herders and the Srebrenica massacre. I come from a tradition of zeroing in on the particular, and from that we can get the big picture. This subject fits that. I just want to record the years that I'm on the planet, and I've been lucky to find people who allow me to do that. I grew up in the British documentary tradition, which makes hundreds of films a year for British television.
LW: It's just really difficult to tell. I was surprised in the first place that Terrence wanted to fund it anyway. It's a strange creature of the community of cinema. I guess I wouldn't have got it done if not for him. He found people who would enable it to happen. [Eventually, this process led to] Disney Studio chairman Joe Roth, who's also a running nut. It came down to the passion of a few individuals. What has surprised me is that it has screened to hard-assed documentary crowds at festivals and touched a chord with people who know nothing about running and couldn't care less about it. They just like the story of overcoming tremendous difficulties. It transcends the specifics of just running. Most who have seen it so far aren't into running. Somehow, in a way I don't understand, it touched a chord in various people.
LW: I am heavily influenced by Robert Flaherty, who pretty much invented documentaries in America in the Twenties. Terrence Malick is also very influenced by him. Without knowing it, it turned into a Flaherty film. Most people can't imagine such a culture [as rural Ethiopia] with so few material goods, so I wanted to clear out any complex detail that would make it difficult to understand. I wanted them to feel the life rather than have the facts about it.
Haile's own family played many of the villagers, and they all improvised the dialogue. I wanted them to say things as they saw it, rather than as I saw it. They replicated their own lives that way.
LW: There's no script. When Gebreselassie won the race, we just followed him back to Ethiopia, and he gave his life story back into a tape recorder. We just used headlines into which the locals improvised their own story. It was like filming a documentary, just observing them living their lives, gathering the harvest, tending cattle, and such. Just life going on. Even the funeral scene [for Gebreselassie's mother, who died of cancer when he was nine], even though there was no body, people went through those events as if they were real, and we just let it go on and took pictures. We didn't ask them to do anything. It reminded me of the way we do anthropological documentaries. I'm usually doing documentaries of a political nature, so a lot of my life has been spent on documentary re-creations, and this was an intersection of my usual interests, although this was different from anything I've done before. I kind of made it up on a daily basis.
LW: It was really difficult. We were lucky, because in the months after the Olympics he took time off. Even so, he kept his training going, morning and afternoons, and we had to film around that. And it was difficult to detain him for filming, but he was very gracious. The slow-motion pace of filming is not natural to someone who runs all the time. It was frustrating for him, but he was also fascinated by it, and had suggestions on how to do it better. His main motivation is patriotic, and he wanted to show that his nation is not only about problems. He wanted people to see the achievement and celebrations that don't normally reach the outside world. He also wanted to show the documentary in Ethiopia and show his countrymen good news about Ethiopia.
When we did another month of filming in spring of '97, he was much harder to come by. He was training hard then.
LW: It was difficult to bring in the logistical needs of the film crew. We had to make sure equipment wouldn't be smashed to pieces. They have brutal roads, with lots of dead animals and crazy driving. They [the crew's Ethiopian handlers] were keen that we wouldn't travel the roads at night because of bandits, they wanted us to get out before nightfall. Once we didn't make it, but we didn't get stopped. It was demanding to get food for the crew and phone lines to Hollywood. It was a constant grind.
LW: He's the most famous man in Ethiopia. It was like trying to film Paul McCartney in London. We could only film for a little bit before he would be recognized and swarmed with fans.
LW: That's a fair observation. I was interested in the big sweep. It's not a sports documentary. It tries to move into different territory, from being a kid in a tough environment to the big podium. To do all of his career just wasn't the film that we wanted. It's like attacking Bonnie and Clyde for not doing a social history of the area. It would be tough to cast it in detail.
LW: Absolutely. In fact, Pressman Films optioned half a dozen runners going in. We met with them, and would have gone with any of them if they had won. I hoped it would be Haile, because we liked him and I knew Ethiopia. I rooted like heck for him.
LW: No. Absolutely not. I found out about him once I got involved with the story, but I knew nothing of his extraordinary achievements. We worked on the film for nine months before Atlanta, and by then we knew a lot and were learning a lot about long-distance running and learning who the stars were and its history. Just like with our filming in Bosnia, we had to get up to speed in a hurry. One of the fascinating aspects of doing a documentary like this is colliding with an aspect of life that you know nothing about.
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