'Runner': Film Review

A powerfully inspirational tale that could tide you over until the next Olympics.
6/19/2020

Bill Gallagher's documentary tells the story of Guor Maker, who escaped war-torn Sudan as a young boy and, after beginning a new life in America, became an Olympic athlete.

There are so many fascinating aspects to Runner that one barely knows where to begin. Sports, immigration issues and the violent, war-torn history of Sudan are but a few of the topics dealt with in Bill Gallagher's engrossing documentary about South Sudanese "lost boy" Guor Mading Maker, who fled his native country, moved to America and became an Olympic athlete. This true story proves so incredible that one can sometimes think it was invented.

Maker has been running all his life. In his early years, he was literally running for his life, after his country became embroiled in a bloody civil war that eventually led to its splitting in two. In 1993, when he was only eight years old, his parents sent him to live with his aunt and uncle in the northern part of the country. Over the next several years, he was captured and enslaved more than once, managing to escape each time.

In 2003, while living in a refugee camp, he and his aunt and uncle were allowed to resettle in the United States, and wound up living in Concord, New Hampshire. Maker was one of the lucky ones; eight of his nine siblings were killed in the war. The film effectively uses vivid animated interludes to depict his early travails.

Maker's athletic abilities were quickly noticed by the high school's track coach, who recruited him for the team. The documentary features footage of Maker running with his teammates, the only Black face in a sea of white. He continued running while attending Iowa State University, managing to qualify for the 2012 London Olympics.

The problem was that he couldn't run for South Sudan because the country had only recently been established and had not yet formed an official Olympics committee. Maker refused to run under the flag of Sudan, considering that option a betrayal of his people who had died in the war. Just days before the event began, he was granted permission to compete under the Olympic flag, one of only a few athletes to do so. Four years later, he competed in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, this time representing South Sudan.

It's an inspirational tale, albeit at times raggedly told. Fortunately, the filmmaker has the benefit of extensive archival footage, as well as a charming subject in Maker, who recounts his harrowing story without a shred of self-pity. The film also includes interviews with many of Maker's friends and colleagues, whose respect and affection for him is abundantly clear.

There are many dramatic moments along the way, including footage of Maker's heartbreaking failure to qualify in a race because he inadvertently went the wrong way, and scenes of him collapsing in utter exhaustion several times during a marathon. On a more joyful note, we see children in a South Sudanese refugee camp in Kenya watching him compete in the Olympics, their faces beaming with pride.

But for sheer emotion, those moments pale in comparison to a sequence depicting Maker's return to his homeland for the first time in 20 years. His elderly mother nearly collapses with joy upon being reunited with her son, and if you're not sobbing along with her, you're likely made of stern stuff.

Maker received U.S. citizenship in 2013 and, to repay his adopted country, enlisted in the Air Force. The film ends on an unexpectedly poignant note, informing us that he's training for the 2020 Olympics — the games that were to have been held in Tokyo and which have been postponed, and possibly canceled, because of the coronavirus. Nonetheless, one gets the feeling that even if Maker is ultimately denied the opportunity to compete for a third time, he'll persevere.

Available on VOD
Production: This is It Films
Distributors: Lucky Hat Entertainment, Muse Production House
Director-producer: Bill Gallagher
Screenwriters-editors: Bill Gallagher, Eric Daniel Metzgar
Executive producers: Jay Narain, Lindsay Narain
Directors of photography: Nikki Bramley, Jacob Benjamin Ateny, Peter Gume, Liam Iandoli, Joseph Gitahi, Pedro von Kruger, Cody Richardson, Danny Camara
Composer: Eduardo Aram

88 minutes