The beauty of documentary filmmaking is that an inspirational story of overcoming hardship can be told without sugar-coating things or sacrificing raw human emotion. The NFB produced Gun Runners, directed by Anjali Nayar, is a perfect example of this: a rousing documentary devoid of any and all emotional manipulation. Somewhere out in the ether of films waiting to be produced there’s a Hollywood version of this story: two former African cattle rustlers who put down their guns and pick up some trainers to become world class athletes. In the Hollywood version, there will be some adversity, but everything will happen exactly as one expects it would and everything will be okay in the end. Nayar’s film has no need to make anything up because the hardship and struggle on display fortifies the film and does justice to her subjects.
Nayar follows Julius Arile and Robert Matanda, friends since youth and both who grew up amid a backdrop of easily accessible AK-47s, tribal violence, and a Kenyan climate so arid that if you didn’t herd cattle for a living you’d never survive. In a bid to stem gun related violence and get some of the half a million illegal small arms off the streets, Arile turns in his weapon via a government sponsored amnesty agreement in exchange for a pair of running shoes. Matanda, a family man, initially resists, but starts taking part in running programs similar to the one Arile has joined.
Like many great stories based around two people fighting for a place within a community that values athletic prowess, Gun Runners focuses on two people from similar backgrounds with different skill levels and needs. Arile and Matanda find themselves training with some of the world’s most elite athletes in Iten, a major proving ground for runners. While there, it’s immediately apparent that Matanda doesn’t quite have the skills or temperament to become a truly great runner, while Arile has a chance to excel if nagging, lifelong injuries don’t slow him down. They also have vastly different endgames in terms of where they want their lives to head. Knowing he can’t provide for his family by running alone (and somewhat jealous of Arile’s talents), Matanda enters the political ring running for local office. Arile’s dreams are bigger, acting as a Kenyan representative at the UN to speak out against the proliferation of illegal small arms around the world. And while Arile is a more skilled marathoner than most of us, his main goal of running in the New York Marathon sounds relatively simple and achievable through the hard work Nayar witnesses and shows to the viewer.
There’s a lot going on in Nayar’s story, and it’s a true credit to her directorial and journalistic skills that Gun Runners can contain so much information and texture across a well paced running time. This isn’t only an inspirational story of two people breaking away from cycles of violence where they were trained at young ages to kill, but an intricate look at the training needed to become a successful African runner, what it means to be a political figurehead on local and worldly stages, and a vastly different look at Kenya than most Western audiences are used to seeing. The pieces might not seem like they fit together on a passing glance, but they add up to a remarkable portrait.
It’s also wonderfully unpredictable. One can hope for the best for Arile and Matanda (the latter of whom tragically passed away in an auto accident just before the film screened in Canada at Hot Docs), but there are so many variables to their future successes and setbacks that the tension on display never seems manufactured or skewed by editorial decisions made by Nayar and her team. Gun Runners feels as real as it gets, and the film and audience are better off for it.
Gun Runners opens in Toronto (Scotiabank Theatre, with guests and Q&A following select opening night screenings), Vancouver (International Village), Montreal (Forum), Quebec City (Cartier), Edmonton (Metro), and Calgary (Globe) this weekend on Friday, October 7. It opens in Sherbrooke on November 6.
Check out the trailer for Gun Runners: