Documentaries continue to impress at this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival with Desert Runners, a hugely inspiring and compelling doc that focuses on people who run (as best they can) a set of Ultra Marathons, four 250km races across four of the world’s toughest deserts – the Atacama in Chile, Gobi in China, Sahara in Egypt and the Antarctica – all within the space of a year.
There’s north of 100 people from all walks of life and countries who take part in this astonishing physical feat but Jennifer Steinman’s well observed film focuses on a handful of the more interesting competitors. One of the pleasures of it is simply getting to know these people along their incredibly arduous journeys and being moved and inspired by the various reasons each of them have for attempting something like this.
These include Dave, an 57-year-old Irishman who wants to prove he can pull it off even at his age; Ricky, an American now living in England who has let his athleticism fall by the wayside; and Tremaine, who’s doing it in honour of his wife whom he lost to cancer the year before. They’re all bound by a couple of things: their passion for running and an inherent need to prove themselves.
Steinman’s intimate yet all encapsulating approach gives the film a real sense of power, putting us right along with these competitors in some of the world’s harshest conditions – try to imagine running in 40 degree Celsius heat for 12 hours straight and you get a glimpse of the idea – and making you feel determined on their behalf. If and when someone drops out part way through you really feel the pain and disappointment of them getting so near and yet so far.
While it may sound like it would get repetitive just watching people run four races, it’s anything but. Steinman keeps things dynamic, jumping from competitor to competitor at different stages and including some shocking turn of events along the way. Desert Runners is a dynamic look at an extreme sport most people probably won’t have heard of, run by everyday people and presented in an involving, moving and inspiring way.