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
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.
Austin Chronicle: Of all the topics in the world that you could have picked
for a documentary, why this one?
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.
AC: Your film topics seem to be all over the map. What causes you to zero
in on a certain topic?
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.
AC: Unlike Europe, the United States is a notoriously weak market for track
& field. Americans generally don't follow the sport except in Olympic years,
and the average sports fan over here has never heard of Gebreselassie. Do you have
high expectations for this film in the U.S., or are you aiming for bigger success
in other countries?
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.
AC:The storytelling is very simple. Is this movie intended more for children,
or was that just a particular style you wanted to use?
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.
AC: Endurance is really a biography rather than a documentary. Given
that your history is in documentaries, what made you want to do it as an acted-out,
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.
AC: How much of a challenge was it to fit the filming in with Gebreselassie's
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
When we did another month of filming in spring of '97, he was much harder to come
by. He was training hard then.
AC:What kind of challenges did filming in rural Ethiopia pose?
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
AC: Tell me about the difficulties of filming Gebreselassie in Addis Ababa,
the Ethiopian capital.
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.
AC: I read one criticism of Endurance which complained that you didn't
spend enough time on Gebreselassie's professional career. Why did you run through
that portion of his life so fast? Why not mention his successes leading up to that
Olympics, and that he was the pre-race favorite?
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.
AC: So you went to Atlanta just looking to film an African winner of the
10,000? Could this movie just as easily have been about Paul Tergat [of Kenya, who
won the silver medal]?
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
AC:Did you know anything about Haile's career before you decided to do this?
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