Filmmaker Mladen Maticevic becomes more a part of the story than he intends in “Run for Life,” a modest but moving docu about three Ethiopian long distance runners who defect to Serbia in the hope of improving their career opportunities and their lives. Audience-friendly, humanist tale should continue its jog around the fest circuit before segueing to home-viewing formats.
In 2007, marathoners Gebre Egziabher Gebre Sellasie, Tamirat Legesse and Estifanos Eshetu travel to Podgorica, Montenegro, to compete, and some days later wind up in Belgrade filing for asylum. Stuck for months in a refugee camp, they ultimately contact a local sports club that puts them in touch with a sympathetic trainer. That coach, Zoran Molovic, takes them on as clients, providing them accommodation at his home in the small farming village of Pambukovica in return for their work around the place and a share of their eventual winnings.
It’s about this time that the young runners come to the attention of helmer Maticevic (whose previous docu, “How to Become a Hero,” shows his self-transformation from an overweight, out-of-shape 40-year-old into a daily runner and competitor in the Belgrade marathon). Immediately bonding with the Ethiopians — and buying them some new shoes — Maticevic starts to follow their life in the village, training regimen and races, and their quest for Serbian citizenship.
In spite of Maticevic’s stated preference for films with happy endings, his docu shows that real life is no fairy tale. Although the Ethiopians make a lot of friends in the village over 18 months, most touchingly with cheerful neighbor Boban Stojanovic, whom they wind up calling “Dad,” their racing results are not so spectacular that the Serbian government is eager to grant them citizenship. Moreover, they find life in Europe is not as easy as they had naively expected. These disappointments lead to dissatisfaction with their initial mentor Molovic, who offers various excuses for his coaching failings and supplies evidence that the runners haven’t been entirely honest with him.
Maticevic sizes up matters with an unjaundiced eye, helping all of his subjects to move past petty recriminations and focus on the most positive possible outcomes. His kindly, down-to-earth spirit dominates the film, especially through his low-key narration.
Straightforward production package is appealing, with the lovely score and animated credits, both by Dejan Vucetic Vuca, particularly worthy of note.