For more than 20 years now, Ethiopian filmmaker and actor Rasselas Lakew has worked to bring Ethiopia's most famous – and forgotten – Olympian to the screen. On Thursday, Feb. 17 and Friday, Feb. 18 the Cascade Festival of African Films will host screenings of "The Athlete" – an award-winning narrative film about Abebe Bikila, an unknown, barefooted marathon runner who won the 1960 Olympic marathon in Rome and became the first Black African to win a gold medal at the Olympics.
But Bikila's story does not end there. Lakew – who also portrays him in the film – says Bikila's life took on epic and humbling proportions. Not only did he win the 1964 Olympic marathon in Tokyo about four minutes ahead of his rivals, he competed in archery and dog sledding after an accident left him without the use of his legs.
Thursday, Feb. 17
The Feb. 17 screening is at noon at PCC Cascade, Moriarty A&H Building, room 104. The Feb. 18 screening starts at 7 p.m. at the Hollywood Theatre, 4122 NE Sandy Blvd. Please arrive early to guarantee a seat. The screenings are free, like all African Film Festival events.
Directors Davey Frankel and Rasselas Lakew spoke with The Skanner News from Germany and New York about their critically acclaimed film, which was "made for more than Paranormal Activity and less than Avatar. But much closer to Paranormal Activity."
The Skanner News: What was it that inspired you to make this film?
Rasselas Lakew: There was a list in 1999 in the New York Times, who were the greatest athletes of the millennium. I couldn't find his name. I said, You have to be kidding me. You're putting some guys that I know – I have the highest respect for the American runners and the Jordans and Alis and Jesse Owens' and Gretzkys and … how about this guy from Africa who is just a shepherd who conquered Rome in his bare feet? How much more do you want him to do, to be in that league? Winning something in barefeet over cobblestones next to the Coliseum makes him the last gladiator. I felt there was a bias in media. I said that is the key. I'm going to make a film and call it the Athlete and everyone's going to see it.
One thing I would like to share about the title – The Athlete. It's a bit audacious. The athlete is a very common name. I really felt he was overlooked, that the generation now was overlooking him. There was an article (by Olympic historian Bud Greenspan) who wrote about Abebe Bikila in 1989 … I thought I'd take it further.
The main thing in sports is not only the victory, but the place, Rome. It's not Paris, it's not London, it's not Zurich, it's Rome. The gateway for the Western World. When a shepherd comes from Ethiopia, he wears a symbol like David for us, and Rome was Goliath. Because we had gone back and forth for 110 years fighting wars with the Romans. This film is something for the ages. A thousand years from now, they will say, a shepherd conquered Rome. That was Abebe Bikila.
And when he did it again in Tokyo, that was the first time a marathon runner had done that in the history of the Olympics. When he did that, he ran every mile the same way, he finished four and a half minutes ahead of everyone. It's the widest margin in Olympic history.
… And then what happens is that he loses his legs. All of a sudden it becomes the Achilles story. Now he has a weakness. God has come and taken his feet out. What is he going to do next? The film is about that. What he achieved after that is the premise of the film. And he becomes the first paralympian in archery, and he becomes a great dog-sledder in the Nordic. He wins a 25 kilometer dog sledding competition in Norway. He dies at 41. So he encompasses everything an athlete would be called because an athlete is tested when his weapon is taken away from him. Just like an artist who lost an eye. He was tested in that way unlike many athletes we would worship. He did all that in 11 years and he said goodbye. That's why I felt this title, this audacious title, was quite fitting for this character.
TSN: How did you prepare for the role both physically and mentally?
Davey Frankel: Rass spoke to a lot of people who ran on the team or old coaches, his main coach who has a main role in the film passed away before Rass started doing the main research for the film, so he never spoke to the actual coach. He met with a lot of his relatives.
RL: Physically, I prepared by running. I actually ran in the marathon in NYC before the film. I had to lose 30 to 35 pounds for the role and also gain weight, because toward the end of his career he was crippled and he began to gain some weight. I had to do those transitions. As far as mannerisms and sensibilities, it's something that's common to Ethiopia, that I've seen in particular men who come from the mountain who are partculataly quiet, but strong and full of hubris.
TSN: How did he react to his fame?
RL: He was indifferent to fame and his glories. He had this quality about him.
DF: He was a confident guy. And sort of a little bit quiet to the outside world. As Rass portrays him, talking to his friends, if you were his close friend, he was an open, giving man. But the world at large, he was a little bit more secluded, a little bit more introverted. My sense of it was that he was very proud of his accomplishments and in that sense, had an ego about him, but the glory of his accomplishments weren't the reason he accomplished them. For him it was something more internal.
TSN: How do you go about making a film about running interesting?
Davey Frankel: There is a history of them, so I think part of it that we wanted to make a film not specifically about running, but what it means to be a champion.
After being the great runner, he was paralyzed in a car accident, he had this determination to carry on. That is what we tried to focus on, the running is part of what he does, but the running itself is not central to the film per se. Throughout the film, because we actually used the Olympic archives of the Olympics themselves, you see the man run. We used the imagery in a much more evocative way, as opposed to it being about the race, per se. There was even a time we talked about, hey man we're not going to shoot our running sequences, because we weren't out to make Charriots of Fire or a Rocky or a movie along those lines. It was making an epic man and detail the character study.
TSN: Is marathon running something that is true to Ethiopian culture or is it just one of many pastimes that Ethiopians take up?
RL: It's a very, very interesting question, because the first Black African is an Ethiopian, it is Abebe Bikila, he did it in a way that was so visceral, so organic, he did it in bare feet … the soldier shepherd who conquered Rome. That actually established a big movement because other runners really looked up to him when he went back to Ethiopia, and pursued that dream, that same dream. Marathons in this point in Ethiopia, anyone pursuing athletics would say, our runners, short distance runners, wouldn't get the ultimate respect of finishing a number one in marathon, because everyone realizes the marathon takes a great deal of effort. The marathon is old, just like Ethiopia. It takes perseverance, too, and it's also a nation of perseverance, 5,000 years without being colonized or conquered by an outside force. It's the first place where human kind has walked. It's one place where the oldest empire existed. This is an empire that is so mountainous and so mystical, and all these things are so parallel to the definition of marathon. The people that come out of the mountains are so rugged and strong and skinny, that they are the result of this nation. It's what this nation is all about it.
It's a very romantic thing. A very romantic event. It's a very proud sport.