About seven years ago, Bill Gallagher was sipping an afternoon coffee, casually flipping through the news. One story grabbed his attention: Marathoner Guor Mading Maker had qualified for but declined a 2012 London Olympics bid because he couldn’t represent the newly formed nation of South Sudan.
Gallagher recalls being awestruck, “Most people would give their kidney to run in the Olympics.”
Within minutes he was on the phone with Mading Maker. Within a week Gallagher was off to London, embarking on his first documentary.
Part of the "lost boys" generation that displaced more than 20,000 youth in Sudan’s decades of civil war, Mading Maker fled his home in 1993 at age 8. The United States granted him asylum in 2001, where he has lived since. Without U.S. citizenship and in absence of a South Sudanese Olympic Committee in 2012, Mading Maker couldn’t represent either country. He received an invite from Sudan, but declined.
In a last minute move, the International Olympic Committee allowed Mading Maker to run under its banner. (He ran under the name Guor Marial at the 2012 Olympics.) Gallagher had already shipped a camera to Mading Maker, now just days after the Opening Ceremony, he was there to meet the runner in person.
Initially both Gallagher and Mading Maker thought they were making a short film that would begin and end in London. They soon realized there was a much bigger story to tell. Mading Maker says he put his trust in Gallagher because he cared about more than just making a film. “He was also concerned with the situation going on with refugees. He was willing to learn what exactly was going on in South Sudan,” says Mading Maker.
“That’s how we extended and kept extending and extending to make the whole story and come up with incredible information to hopefully impact the rest of youth in South Sudan,” says Mading Maker.
“Seven countries, five continents, no money,” later says Gallagher, “Runner” charts Mading Maker’s rise from reluctant Concord, New Hampshire high school track recruit to two-time Olympian. It also tells Mading Maker’s personal survival story of fleeing his war-torn home, in context of the region’s tumultuous, violent unrest. The film makes its New England premiere at the Woods Hole Film Festival on Saturday, July 27 with Gallagher in person, Mading Maker via Skype, and other local crew and supporters expected to attend.
Before turning to documentary, Gallagher worked in Boston’s nonprofit field helping people with severe mental disabilities find employment. He now lives in Spain. He says he’s always had the goal of making “some sort of positive change” and realized his niche could be telling people’s stories. After studying documentary at The New School he worked as a producer on the Oscar-nominated “If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front.” He had just been thinking he’d like to direct his own project when he heard Mading Maker’s story.
To tell this story, Gallagher says there was an abundance of available of footage from Mading Makers’s running career, especially from just before the London Olympics. “Seemingly every major outlet in the world… they all did a story on Guor,” he says. But there was very little material — one photograph — to pull from to tell the story of Mading Maker's childhood.
With accuracy and emotional resonance as his top priorities, Gallagher says he needed to find a way to tell the story of Mading Maker's boyhood escape from what is now South Sudan to Egypt, and finally to the United States. At first he considered reenactment, but says he "couldn't wrap his head around it" and then landed on animation and his search for the right team took more than a year. Then began the process of composing mock-ups, using thousands of photographs taken in South Sudan, data found or confirmed online, and info provided by Mading Maker himself.
Given the trauma Mading Maker experienced, Gallagher says he tried not to ask too much of his film’s subject. Once he had a sense of a scene — like when Mading Maker was forced into labor, his hands and feet bound so he could not escape — Gallagher says he might ask, “Could you see sunlight?” Gallagher admits he became obsessed with getting details right, from the direction of the sun over the Nile to whether or not mango trees grow on its banks. (They do.) “Hopefully that authenticity washes over people,” says Gallagher. (It does; it’s a beautiful and sensitively rendered story within a story.)
The next several phases of Mading Maker’s life captured in the film – high school in New Hampshire, then off to run for Iowa State, his first Olympics, his first return visit to South Sudan – contain intense drama best left to the screen. The collection of voices who chime in, from an astute historian to a mentor he calls “Mrs. Coach,” demonstrate over and over how Mading Maker’s endurance has inspired people from all parts of the world.
Yet the film also alludes to the weight of that responsibility. In the heart-wrenching scenes when Mading Maker reunites with his parents for the first time in 20 years, his father says to him, “My son you are the only source of my hope.”
Mading Maker saw the film for the first time at its May world premiere in California. He says even though those were his life experiences, the film reminded him of the obstacles he has overcome. “When you’re the subject you just don’t know what is going to happen,” he says of the filmmaking process, whose end result he says, “turned out incredible.”
For Mading Maker, the common struggle of refugees is the film’s most important takeaway. “Refugees are not enemies of any nation. They did not choose to leave their nation. They have to, for dangerous situations. When they go to different countries [like what] happened in my case, they are productive of their society. They are contributing. They are not enemies.”
Just as he knew that Gallagher would have his own take, Mading Maker acknowledges that viewers will too. “Now it’s up to the receiver to use it as a political tool or as a civil tool, it’s up to that person. They will take the story in different ways.”
The Woods Hole Film Festival runs from July 27 through August 3, featuring mostly North American short and feature-length narrative and nonfiction films.