By Amy Stupavsky 

It is 2006, and Julius Arile Lomerinyang walks the streets of New York City in traditional Kenyan tribal clothing on his way to meet United Nations Secretar General Kofi Annan. Onlookers stop to stare. It’s the first day of the UN’s Small Arms Review Conference, and Arile is the millionth person to support the Million Faces petition for stricter arms control, part of Amnesty International’s Control Arms campaign.

He is a long way in both time and space from Great Rift Valley, Kenya, where he and his childhood friend Robert Matanda Wafula once terrorized the area as two of the most infamous bush militia warriors.

Matanda received his first gun in primary school and used to command more than 500 men. “It was very difficult to change my life,” says Matanda.

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This is the beginning of Gun Runners, a new film by Nairobi-based Canadian filmmaker and journalist Anjali Nayar. Filmed over the course of eight years, the documentary follows Arile and Matanda as they lay down their weapons in an attempt to become professional marathoners.

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In Kenya, there is a growing shift from gun running to running. Cattle are the lifeblood of the communities, and stealing cows can precipitate tribal wars, which are exacerbated by poverty and political corruption. There are more than half a million illegal guns in the country, and in an effort to stem violence, a government-led civilian disarmament program gives cattle rustlers amnesty and a pair of running shoes in exchange for their guns. As participants in the program, Arile and Matanda explore running as a means of redemption and possibility.

“Trading weapons for running is a really wonderful approach to solving Kenya’s problems, and that drew me into the story,” says Nayar. “I like the idea of running as a transformative act. Universally, sport brings people together, and especially in Kenya, running brings people together because it’s a running country.”

Photos taken in Kamariny Stadium in Iten, Kenya's town of champion marathon runners, for documentary film by Anjali Nayar supported the National Film Board of Canada called Gun Runners.

Photos taken in Kamariny Stadium in Iten, Kenya’s town of champion marathon runners, for documentary film by Anjali Nayar supported the National Film Board of Canada called Gun Runners.

“Running is such a beautiful metaphor for everything that we have to get through in life.”

Kenya’s running culture also brought together Arile, Matanda and Nayar. In 2006, Nayar, who was working as a foreign correspondent, covered the Tegla Loroupe Peace Race, a 10k road race in Kapenguria, Kenya, uniting warriors from rival tribes who compete for cash and cattle prizes. (Tegla Loroupe, a champion Kenyan long-distance runner and the first woman from Africa to win the New York Marathon, created the race in 2003 to reduce conf lict in the region.) Arile, who is related to Tegla Loroupe, won the race and then set his sights on running – and winning – the New York Marathon.

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“In Kenya, running provides a way out of poverty,” says Nayar. “I think that’s why it’s so popular. Kenyans are physiologically gifted for running, and everyone knows someone in their town who has earned money from running, so it seems like an achievable dream. Arile thinks, ‘if Tegla Loroupe can do it, I can do it, too.’”

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At the Peace Race, Nayar interviewed Arile and Matanda for a short CBC radio segment, but it was clear to her that their stories exceeded the scope of a 10-minute journalistic piece. “I never intended to make a feature film, but the personalities were larger than life,” says Nayar. “The incredible tapestry of events in their lives made me want to tell
their tales.”

“There have been a lot of films about East African runners. Very rarely does a director allow these characters to tell their own stories.”

The film shifts back and forth between Arile and Matanda storylines. Nayar trails Arile through training, injuries and races abroad in pursuit of his New York Marathon dream. When Matanda’s aptitude for running falls short, he becomes chairman of the Peace Race. He also embarks on a different kind of race – one for political office.
The film chronicles the men’s struggles with their friendship, pasts, families and aspirations.

Nayar gains unprecedented access to the men’s lives and allows them to tell their stories in their own words.

“There have been a lot of films about East African runners,” says Nayar. “Very rarely does a director allow these characters to tell their own stories. It was important to me not to have a narrator. I wanted to keep as close to their perspective as possible. I wanted to show their understanding of their past, present and future.”

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Arile and Matanda gain that understanding through running, which remains at the heart of the film. Legs striding across earth and pavement are recurring images – a nod to the idea of running as progress and moving forward. “For them, running is about seeing what is possible, and it transforms their ability to dream and see a life beyond the bush,” says Nayar. “Running didn’t always lead to good things or positive change, but it gave them the opportunity to live different lives. They take a chance on running; there are incredible consequences to that risk.”

“Running is such a beautiful metaphor for everything that we have to get through in life,” echoes Kat Baulu of the National Film Board of Canada (nfb), who co-produced the film. “It teaches us to finish what we start. People identify with Arile and Matanda because of the careful way Anjali lets people into their hearts and minds.”

The film culminates in Arile’s participation in the 2013 New York Marathon. His family and friends, including Matanda, watch rapt in front of the television from Kenya. He starts off strong, but slips from the lead as fatigue and pain overtake him. Suddenly, he surges ahead and manages to secure a fourth-place finish with a personal-best time of 2:10:03. After a string of losses and disappointments, he can return home with prize money to help his family.

“I never intended to make a feature film, but the personalities were larger than life. The incredible tapestry of events in their lives made me want to tell their tales.”

For Nayar, Arile’s marathon triumph marks the highlight in the nearly decade-long making of Gun Runners. “Knowing his history and how he struggles at the 35–42k point, I realized how difficult it was for him pull ahead, make up time and start passing people,” she says. “The crew and I went crazy. We were living the race entirely through him. I feel exactly what Arile feels in those moments. You end up living vicariously through both of these men because you’re rooting for them so incredibly.”

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Gun Runners premiered at Hot Docs, North America’s largest documentary film festival, in Toronto. The film is slated for a Canada-wide release later this year. The NFB has also partnered with the Canada Running Series to promote the film; screenings will coincide with the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon in the fall. Nayar and Baulu hope that the film will gain traction with international festivals and audiences as well. “We think it will play well to audiences, especially in the running community,” says Baulu. “We’re hoping that they’ll adopt the film, and become immersed in the characters’ lives and become transformed through their experiences.”

Photos taken in Kamariny Stadium in Iten, Kenya's town of champion marathon runners, for documentary film by Anjali Nayar supported the National Film Board of Canada called Gun Runners.

Photos taken in Kamariny Stadium in Iten, Kenya’s town of champion marathon runners, for documentary film by Anjali Nayar supported the National Film Board of Canada called Gun Runners.

All runners share the experience of the sport’s ability to challenge and change us, which Nayar says will resonate with audiences. “A person doesn’t just undertake a marathon,” she says. “There has to be a reason why you’re running those 42.2k – whether it’s to prove something to yourself, raise money or lose weight. There is a core ambition that drives marathoners, so this idea of reforming your life through running fits into the larger picture of what it means to finish a race.”

Amy Stupavsky is a regular contributor to Canadian Running. She lives in Toronto.