Documentary Review: A South Sudanese refugee lives to compete as a “Runner”

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“Runner” is the life story of Olympic marathoner Guor Maker (Marial), a South Sudanese refugee who raced in two Olympics, once without a country.

In Maker’s tale, first-time documentary director Bill Gallagher finds a story of privation and perseverance, personal pain, of tragedies and triumphs. It’s a running saga reminder that life and sport only rarely dole out ” Hollywood ending.” But the struggle is its own reward and is inspiring in its own right.

We hear Guor, who went by his uncle’s name (Marial) for part of his competing career, having lost touch with his parents in civil war-torn Sudan, narrate his story to animated visuals of the trauma of attacks in the Sudan/South Sudan border county of Pariang.

“I was born into a war life,” he says. With child-soldier kidnappings a way of life in the conflict between the Islamic north of Sudan and the African south, his parents urged him to flee. He was captured and escaped, imprisoned by a soldier using him as his slave only to escape again.

Maker and the filmmaker gloss over the process it took for him to be sent to America in his early teens. But he wound up in Concord, New Hampshire. And that’s where coaches saw his raw potential.

“‘Are you ready to run?'” one asks him. “He didn’t know what ‘track’ was, didn’t even know it was a sport.”

“Run where?”

Thus began his life-changing odyssey, from track team to stand-out cross-country runner, to Iowa State University and then his quest to make it to the Olympics, with or without a country.

Gallagher’s film recounts the Concordians who pitched in to help Guor, media members who related his story and created notoriety that the International Olympic Committee could not ignore, even if South Sudan was separating from Sudan, and had no Olympic team in time for the 2012 London Olympics.

Gallagher spends much of the film on the qualifying races Guor had to run, wringing drama out of the qualifying time he had to beat, lots of footage of Guor running, “the weight of his country on him,” manically checking his watch to see if he was on pace to be under two hours and nineteen minutes, the Olympic benchmark.

Sudanese refugees cheer him on from the race course, but back home, do his folks even know he’s alive? 

Gallagher’s years-in-the-making doc hits several emotional peaks, and its hero remains a compelling figure, win or lose. It’s the cinematic embodiment of that worn old Olympic ideal, expressed by founder Pierre de Coubertin over 125 years ago.

The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well.”

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Cast: Guor Maker

Credits. Directed by Bill Gallagher. A This is It Films release.

Running time: 1:28

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