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Documentary to watch: Gun Runners

Nairobi-based director and filmmaker Anjali Nayar turns the camera on two Kenyan runners in her documentary Gun Runners to show what it's like to make the journey to the leading pack in the world's biggest races.

Courtesy National Film Board of Canada.
Courtesy National Film Board of Canada.

Update: While Gun Runners premiered last year, was featured at the Hot Docs film festival in Toronto, and played in theatres during the city’s Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon, it’s now easily accessible to runners across the country. Fans of running-focused documentaries can relax and enjoy this one from the comfort of their own homes as it’s now on Netflix. The director, Anjali Nayar, made us aware of this news after she tweeted about it yesterday.

For more of our recent Netflix recommendations for runners, see our list here.

In the world of long distance running, Kenyan runners are cream of the crop. When it comes to the most prestigious marathons and international competition, Kenyan athletes are pre-race favourites and experts at nabbing podium positions. But who exactly are these athletes and where do they come from? And what do they put on the line in the quest to bring cash home to Kenya?

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Nairobi-based director and filmmaker Anjali Nayar turns the camera on two Kenyan runners in her documentary Gun Runners (produced by the National Film Board of Canada) to show what it’s like to make this journey to the top. Over the span of nearly a decade, she follows lifelong friends Julius Arile and Robert Matanda who end their lifestyle as ruthless countryside warriors to become runners. For years, the two men lived in the bush, raiding homes in North Kenya, stealing cattle, murdering — and running from police.

Gun Runners (Trailer) from NFB/marketing on Vimeo.

That’s the lifestyle that many Kenyan men live as means to support themselves. But it just so happens that being a wanted warrior and spending days running from enemies and cops is solid training for running marathons. That’s why Kenya’s government started encouraging warriors to exchange their rifles for amnesty and a pair of running shoes.

Arile New Yorkfinal
Courtesy of the National Film Board of Canada

When Arile and Matanda give up their guns, Arile’s gift for running is discovered. He wins local races which results in him going to New York to address the UN in talks about gun violence in his country. It’s there that his dream to become a top runner is born. He promises to one day return to run the New York City Marathon, one of the world’s most historic running events. Arile goes back to Kenya making the move to Iten — or the “home of champions” as it’s known for hosting the world’s most talented runners. Meanwhile, Matanda struggles to keep up with the level of training and resolves to become a farmer and get into politics — earning his living honestly.

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It’s Arile’s story especially that leaves a lasting impression. When watching a marathon, viewers get the story for 42.2K from the start to the finish line. But when Nayar points the camera at one athlete in particular as he pours years of his life into racing, the result is an emotionally charged depiction of how incredibly difficult it is for a person to put the poverty of his family on hold to pursue a career that may or may not win him prize purse dollars. As his family begs him to give it all up, viewers begin to understand the desperation of some of the most talented runners in the world– and of those who are waiting for them back home. In Arile’s case, he does make it to New York. He places fourth in the 2013 New York City Marathon running a 2:10:03 and finally winning a respectable chunk for his family.

Peace Race_edited
Courtesy of the National Film Board of Canada

In hearing the plot line of this documentary, one might assume that this is a film for those who stringently follow the international elite marathon running scene. But that’s not the case. Gun Runners is a compelling narrative even for those who have zero connection to the sport. (Nayar herself is not a competitive runner.) It successfully delivers the backstory of people who are labelled “elite” and often known for just their high level performances. Those backstories make them all the more worth celebrating when they do succeed.

In a sport that continues to struggle to pull fans, it is compelling human interest stories like Gun Runners that could fill the gap and draw eyes to the most prestigious competitions in the world. Not only does Nayar’s feature film educate, but it also sheds light on what really goes into races like New York, Boston or Berlin — beyond the record setting, tape breaking and personal best times.