At the recent Film Africa film festival in London, the new Ethiopian feature film “Atletu” (The Athlete) was screened to a sold-out audience. Directed by Rasselas Lakew and Davey Frankel, it is a portrayal of Abebe Bikila, the Ethiopian runner who won two Olympic marathons in a row, and broke the world record in Rome in 1960, running bare feet.
Here’s the trailer:
The film follows a recent trend in feature filmmaking that weaves archival material with contemporary filmed footage, producing an interesting dialogue between the documentary imaginary and the fictional. The historical ‘real’, in these cases, don’t just provide a narrative framework, or set-dressing aesthetic. They produce a filmic grain that in turn invests in the contemporary footage a sense of historicism and character. I’m thinking of Gus Van Sant’s “Milk,” where Sean Penn’s portrayal of the first openly gay congressman Harvey Milk is bolstered by the warmth and nostalgia of the 1970s archival footage that is intercut throughout, or Shane Meadows’s “This is England” (2006), where the opening credits show Margaret Thatcher in a tractor, or Princess Diana’s wedding, or a scared bobby beset by women at the Greenham Common protests. It’s an example of the use of archival footage to produce a setting that is spine-tinglingly nostalgic, so powerful in its evocation of a time past, that it transports you into it. The archival material is producing a social context, a milieu and an aesthetic that extends beyond the limits of staged scenes.
In the case of the Ethiopian film “The Athlete,” the restrained, somewhat sparse pace is made possible by its borrowing of footage from Kon Ichikawa’s momentous documentary “Tokyo Olympiad” (1965), which used 164 cameramen operating 1, 031 cameras to capture godlike athleticism interspersed with the true grit of physical determination and suffering. Here, below, follows the 9 minute marathon sequence from Kon Ichikawa’s Tokyo Olympiad:
If “The Athlete” is a marathon-paced film on the whole — slow, restrained and rhythmic (the film seems to have 4 ‘chapters’) — the use of archival material from Ichikawa’s film are the cinematic sprints in time and narrative; they capture a sense of history, of Bikila’s unending determination, and of a nations pride wrapped up in one thin, loping man.
Similarly, the images of Bikila running through a torch-lit Rome in 1960, the flourishing music disguising the (imagined) soft patter of his bare feet on the cobblestones is just as powerful.
Illuminated by the headlights of the motorbike filming him, or by the warm glow of the onlookers, Bikila seems to be running in a vacuum, running on an infinite stretch of moving road, with no particular destination.
After finishing the Tokyo marathon in 1964 Bikila famously said he could have run another 10 kilometres.
It is this unending determinism that “The Athlete” portrays; athleticism is not tied to a certain discipline, and there is no finish line, rather it is an infinite race with the self. When Bikila is injured in an accident, and tragically loses the use of his legs three years before his grand finale race at the Munich Olympics (in 1972), he continues to be an athlete, taking part in the Stoke Mandeville Archery tournament (near to where his rehabilitation hospital was located in Britain), and then in a cross-country sled race with the King of Norway.
But back to Kon Ichikawa’s documentary: Bikila’s godlike athleticism, his gentle, composed running style, perfectly symmetrical and ruthlessly resolute is celebrated by Ichikawa. As Bikila enters the Tokyo stadium for the final lap of his momentous marathon (watch the second embedded video, above, again), his loping body is caught delicately by a telephoto tracking shot. Slowed down, it exposes every sinew in Bikila’s long and graceful legs, every muscle dancing to the rhythm of his feet on the track. This sequence of the film is truly remarkable for its deft admiration of the athlete’s body, marvelling at the mechanics of its workings, revealing a photographic trope that revels in the capture of the exposed body (yet perhaps bears some uncomfortable link to colonial fascinations with the black body).
And yet, Ichikawa was not seeking the Man as God illusion that is shown in Reifenstahl’s “Olympia” (1936). The camera does not elevate the athlete. Rather, Ichikawa’s camera is close to the ground, zoomed in on the suffering, in the collapsed marathon runner, or in the beads of sweat dripping consistently from Bikila’s chin. The athlete, in the archival footage and in Lakew’s dramatisation of Bikila’s life, is beyond everything, movingly human.