I’m happy to report that the very fine documentary “Runner,” while it won’t entirely fill the upcoming two-week canceled-Tokyo-Olympics void, can definitely provide an excellent Olympics substitute that’ll affect you for at least three days.
Running for His Life
Eight-year-old Sudanese Guor Mading Maker had to constantly run from soldiers in war-torn Sudan.
The historical stage-setting of Guor’s world is that the abrupt exit of the British Empire from Sudan in the 1950s kicked off a vicious clash of civilizations between the very traditionally African South Sudan and the culturally Arabic-Islamic North Sudan. The South eventually seceded, but it wasn’t long before a bloody civil war broke out.
In what could be described as the ultimate Hero’s Journey, in 1993, Guor’s parents placed their little boy at the village outskirts and told him to march and never come back. It was an act of love. He fended for himself in harsh survival mode for years, enduring slavery and imprisonment. Guor was lucky; eight of his nine siblings were killed in the war.
Then, in 2003, while surviving in a refugee camp, he, his aunt, and his uncle were allowed to resettle in Concord, New Hampshire. Guor started running again, but this time for his high school track team.
Like all true heroes, he had abilities bordering on the supernormal. Not even knowing what a track was for, he immediately left his very competitive coach in the dust. Guor went on to run for Iowa State University, and qualified for the 2012 London Olympics. As the university coach’s wife relates, “Guor called me up and said, ‘Mrs. Coach … I’m going.'”
Running for His Country
However, because the brand-new South Sudanese government had no official Olympics committee of its own yet, it wasn’t recognized by the International Committee. So Guor campaigned to compete independently.
He refused to run for Sudan, the country that had forced him to run all his life and become a refugee, feeling that this would dishonor the memory of his fallen friends and relatives. In taking this stand against oppression, he won the hearts of his people.
Just days prior to the opening of the XXX Olympic Games, Guor was granted permission to compete under the Olympic flag. As his manager humorously notes, “We’re officially the smallest Olympic team in history.”
Guor went on to compete in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, this time proudly representing the youngest nation in the world—South Sudan. Watching him run, one Sudanese child said, “Mother, I have a strange feeling. I do not know, what is this feeling.” His mother replied, “You are feeling pride, my son.”
Bringing the Gold Back to the Village Compound
The classic archetype of the Hero’s Journey (a particular sequence of human life choices discovered by Joseph Campbell, a professor of literature at Sarah Lawrence College) is as follows: You leave the village compound to fetch water. There’s a strange call to adventure. Following it, you enter a dark, dangerous forest. You fall off a cliff. You discover a cave, where you find your gold (your talent and mission in life; that which brings you joy). You meet your ally, who helps you climb out of the ravine, back to the village compound. You share your hard-won gold for the benefit of all.
Guor’s adult life is also quite dramatic: his devastating failure to qualify in a marathon because he took a wrong turn (the route signage was ill-defined), and a race where he’s overcome with exhaustion.
But the high point of the film is when he returns to his homeland in 2013, for the first time in 20 years. His wizened mother collapses in a heap with joy. Although it’s obviously one of the most emotional things a mother could ever experience, I detected a certain stylization, like some kind of little-known tribal ritual, like, “The Dance of the Mother Celebrating the Return of Her Last-Born Son.”
His reunion with his father is no less amazing. His elderly father dances and sings a family folk hymn in celebration: “My mother you have not given birth to me in vain. Even though I am very small and thin, you have not birthed me in vain.”
The film uses computer-generated animated sequences to fill in the missing gaps of Guor’s early tribulations, and includes interviews with his friends, coaches, and running team. The collective warmth regarding the giant compassion that flows from this African man, and the respect regarding his complete lack of self-pity, is abundant.
Guor Maker obtained U.S. citizenship in 2013 and trained for the now-canceled 2020 Olympics. This man would rather die than quit. Count on his running in the next available Olympics; it’s a safe bet that he will literally bring home the gold to the village compound of his beloved South Sudan.
“Runner” is available to watch online until July 30th. Twenty percent of the proceeds go to the Refugee Assistance Alliance.
Director: Bill Gallagher
Starring: Guor Mading Maker, family, countrymen, and friends
Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 1 hour, 28 minutes
Release date: June 19, 2020
Rated: 4 stars out of 5