At the 1960 Olympics in Rome, Abebe Bikila, an athlete dismissed by commentators as an “unknown Ethiopian”, became the first black African to win an Olympic gold medal. His victory caused a palpable shock in the international community - at the time newspapers declared that “it took an entire Italian army to conquer Ethiopia, but only one Ethiopian soldier to conquer Rome”. In Tokyo 1964, Bikila became the first man ever to win two Olympic marathons, amazingly winning the first while running barefoot - an achievement that lives on in footwear technology. Rasselas Lakew and Davey Frankel’s award winning film The Athlete, showcased recently at Film Africa 2011 in London, charts Bikila's from shepherd boy to Olympic champion.
While Bikila’s story contains all the makings of a blockbuster, we can be thankful that Hollywood did not get its hands on it. The recent release of Machine Gun Preacher shows that Hollywood is still clinging to the old ‘white hero + [insert poor African country here]’ formula and continues to follow the tired rhetoric about the continent so well satirised by the essay How to write about Africa.
As Chimamanda Adichie explains, the problem with this reductive perspective is that it relates Africa's history as “a story of catastrophe in which there was no possibility of feelings more complex than pity; no possibility of a connection as human equals”. The Athlete defies this stereotype by providing an alternative narrative, an inspiring and historical story of one of Africa’s champions. Ultimately, widespread misconceptions of Africa can only be righted by the stories which are told by Africans themselves. Frankel and Lakew’s dynamic use of Olympic archive footage in creating The Athlete is an excellent contribution and many of the images of Ethiopia used in the film challenge stereotypes of Africa as a place of only famine and war. Most importantly, the film clearly demonstrates that the Ethiopian film industry is well equipped to document its own history.
Lakew told Think Africa Press of his surprise when he found that no one else had tried to turn Bikila’s powerful story into a film, considering Bikila’s pivotal status in international sport and Ethiopian history. “I wanted to share a forgotten story from Africa to the rest of the world, a story that even Africans themselves have overlooked until now,” he explained.
Lakew believes that Bikila’s determination makes The Athlete more than a story about an Ethiopian athlete, or even an Olympian; it is a universal human story about overcoming hardship. In a tragic cinematic twist, a car accident crushes Bikila’s Olympic dreams, leaving him a paraplegic. Although the scenes in an English hospital tend to drag, the energy picks up again when Bikila’s competitive spirit leads to him winning a 25km cross-country sledge competition in Norway just a year after the accident. The film concludes showing Bikila being honoured by the emperor and his fellow countrymen for his achievements. Bikila died tragically in 1973 from complications related to his accident. His funeral was attended by over 75,000 people, and he was declared a national hero. In Ethiopia he has a stadium, a school and even type of running shoe named after him.
Lakew spoke of the challenges he faced when making the film. He had no prior experience in the industry and was simultaneously co-directing and playing Bikila in a film made on a shoestring budget. Although these factors meant the film took 14 years to make, Lakew said the only unassailable challenge was trying to mimic Bikila’s effortless stride, a feat he never managed even after hours of studying archive footage.
Digital technology has made filmmaking more accessible across Africa, with over 800 films a year being produced in Ethiopia. However, Lakew believes that enthusiasm and passion can only take you so far, and the focus of the Ethiopian film industry has been on quantity rather than quality. He described aspects of the industry as still “very provincial” and said it will take time and more emphasis on script writing to make it commercially viable.
However, it is clear that progress has been made in the Ethiopian film industry. The Athlete itself has been successful on an international level - at the 2010 Academy Awards it became the first Ethiopian film to be submitted for a Best Foreign Language Film. Ethiopian filmmaker Zelalem Woldemariam recently won the first Africa programme grant from Focus Features. The African film industry is also making strides across the continent, with audiences increasingly choosing to watch African films. In 2010, Nigerian film Ijé: The Journey by Chineze Anyaene was the second highest grossing film in Nigerian cinemas, second only to Avatar.
Even when the quality is there, the biggest challenge facing African film is distributing the end product. Lakew explained the problem: “Buyers pre-judge work from Africa based on past experiences, because ultimately they want to be commercially reimbursed. Historically there haven’t been many African movies that have made for the mainstream so there is a distribution bias." During the Film Africa 2011 distribution forum, which included directors as well as key distributers in the UK, the need to attract commercial audiences across Africa was highlighted as a priority alongside the need for international distribution. Frankey and Lakew are currently attempting to reach non-African audiences and, with momentum building for the London 2012 Olympics, they hope to push for the commercial release of The Athlete in the UK.
At the same time, Lakew is already researching his next projects, he is particuarly interested in historical figures from Africa who achieved success in the international realm. He feels these stories will add to the collection of narratives coming out of Africa that are empowering, humanising, and reject simplified stereotypes about the continent.
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