Running the World

Having racked up three audience awards since its world premiere in Edinburgh (June 2013), director Jennifer Steinman will present her feature doc Desert Runners at IDFA in the Best of the Fests section.

The crowd nods were at the fests of Edinburgh, Vancouver and The Hamptons. Cargo Releasing’s David Piperni is representing the film at Docs for Sale. Producer Yael Melamede, also in attendance at IDFA, this year won an Oscar for best documentary short with Inocente, directed by Sean Fina and Andrea Nix.

Desert Runners follows four runners – the young Australian Samantha, 56-year-old Dave from Ireland, London-based US ex-pat Ricky, and widower Tremaine – who embark upon the arduous ‘4-desert challenge’: four individual 250km marathons across the Atacama, Gobi, Sahara and Antarctic deserts, each leg to be completed within five days. The characteristics of each terrain are daunting. While Atacama is used by space agencies to replicate conditions on Mars, the Sahara, we are told, is the hottest desert on earth, with temperatures in excess of 50 degrees Celsius. The Gobi is the world’s windiest desert and Antarctica the coldest.
Moving film still from Desert Runners, created by Tech Noir. More Cinemagraphs >>

“It is a pretty awesome challenge,” director Steinman stresses, also for her and her cameraman who had to follow the runners across the vast swathes of wasteland, often on foot. “Yes, it was a hard slog,” she concedes. “Most days we were the first up and the last to bed.”

Steinman says she became fascinated by the idea after hearing runner Dave at a nutrition conference. “He dropped into his talk how he was going to do the 4-desert challenge, and I knew immediately I wanted to film it,” she says. Originally he was to be the sole subject, but Steinman was forced to widen the terms of the brief after he revealed, just before the race, that he hadn’t trained as diligently as might be expected. “We were like, what! So we thought, we’d better get some other storylines.”

As one may expect, Desert Runners is a film that offers triumph and despair in equal measure, and audiences are left in no doubt as to how dangerous the adventure can be. Nor are they spared the visceral detail of blood and blisters, advice on which parts of the anatomy to keep clean during the ordeal, as well as stories such as that told by a runner who fell over, only to see his intestines pour through a ruptured stomach wall. Not surprisingly, the competitors eschew sporting metaphor when describing their ordeal. They are the “walking wounded” and their theater of endeavour is nothing other than “a war zone.”

Nick Cunningham
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