The Runners, and an interview with co-director Matan Rochlitz

Of all the exercises that the human body can engage in, running is perhaps the only one that allows for another world to blossom around the runner. The whole process requires a great amount of focus: you have to be sure of your pacing, your breath, how your muscles feel, checking in with your body for pain, dehydration, seeing how you're doing on time. But eventually, these duties become mechanical, and the mind and spirit -- that infamous pair that chafe when they get too close to each other -- begin to work in a wonderfully paced harmony. Thoughts come and go, worries rise and fall. The ground and surroundings become a metaphor for whatever's on your mind. And no matter what that is, the conclusion is always the same: keep going.

In this short documentary, cleverly disguised as 11 minutes spent with a variety of running strangers, we receive tremendous insight that feels as well-timed as the unrelenting thumping of their feet. I felt so thankful at the end of this film. I'm in a time of deep transition and worry, and normally I would go running to calm my mind but I can't because of a knee injury. I accidentally discovered this film on Short of the Week, and I heard a few things I really needed to hear. They brought me great peace, almost as if I was coursing through a park, gently out of breath, moving toward an answer.

I wish the same for you.

Please enjoy the lovely short documentary The Runners, directed by Matan Rochlitz and Ivo Gormley, below.

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You know how I get when I get excited about a film. I just had to get a hold of Matan Rochlitz for an interview. Enjoy!

Celeste Ramos: Where did the idea for the film come from? Was it hard to get people to open up to you in such a setting?

Matan Rochlitz: The idea came while swimming, actually. I was in a headspace where just before diving in I would think about whatever it was I was trying to figure out at the time, and through swimming hopefully make some sort of progress. I noticed the power of that state of mind, and for a moment I thought it would be interesting to film swimmers. But the logistics of that would obviously be quite difficult, so then running seemed like an obvious way to try it out instead. So I asked my friend, colleague and co-director Ivo Gormley about it. We decided to give it a crack and see how we did.

We didn't know if it was going to work at all. I think the first person we spoke to stopped me through my second question saying something like, Look I don't wanna tell you these things now, go away. And that was it. But then the second person, was the man in the film who was talking about his dad. And when that happened we realized hey, this could work. So we carried on from there.

CR: So was it spontaneous or did you plan anything at all beforehand?

MR: No, it was very loose and explorative, we didn't plan anything. It was an excuse to talk to strangers, you know. I did it with a vague sense of trying to tap into people's wisdom about life. Everyone's got some kind of wisdom to share. So it was an experiment to see if we could have that kind of conversation and get people to open up. We didn't have a list of questions or an agenda as to what we were going to talk about. Everyone's life has led them down a different path, which means that everyone will have something particularly interesting to say about something and not something else. The challenge was to find what it was that people had on their chest or on their minds, so that they could really convey their passion. Sometimes we found it, sometimes we didn't.

CR: The organic process of running is so present in the film. The mind wanders but also spends time with whatever topic comes up before releasing it and moving to the next one, instead of the frenetic jumping from one thought and feeling to the next without digesting them. There's that inner world one taps into when running that's kind of spiritual. Was there a spiritual element to the film you set out with, maybe in the back of your mind, or that you'd noticed after the film was done?

MR: I wouldn't say that that was something we set out on. If I have to think about it, it comes down to that space, that special space that running happens to create, and I still wonder what it is. I wonder which bit about running makes that space. It feels special. You could call it a spiritual space, or I don't know how you could define it. I felt a little like when you go to church and you feel that it's a different space that exists on a different plane. You sum it up to a very biological answer... you're bringing more oxygen to the brain and so you feel this effect. Or you could say it has to do with the emotional connection to motion. I don't know why running creates a particular space.

CR: Maybe it has to do with once you start moving with a steady breath, the racket of the mind dies down.

MR: Like working with the breath in meditation, yes. But you know, one thing that came up in conversations about the film is that somehow we were trying to say, or the film was trying to show, what people think about when they run. And I would disagree. I don't think that any of those people were thinking about any of the things they talked about in the film. This is an effect of the space we're talking about, that made it happen; I crossed the line of the private experience of running, and once in that space, whatever it was that I asked people, felt like it got a more genuine, truthful, insightful answer. It's not because the running brings up those topics, it's because the running seems to bring clarity and focus, and no bullshit. It's hard to bullshit when you're running. There's nowhere to hide, no body language to be defensive behind. There's a vulnerability.

CR: Absolutely. And you can't bullshit when you're out of breath. You have to choose your words wisely!

MR: Yes. You can't talk around what it is you want to say. You have to be very honest.

CR: Why did you stretch the film across seasons instead of keeping the entire experience in one period of the year?

MR: I like films where I sense that the filmmaker has spent time with the subject. It's a bit hard to do with this film of course because everyone's fleeting. We met them once and for ten minutes. I don't know if it's conscious or unconscious, but I think the park becomes almost like a character. We saw it in so many shapes and sizes and colors because of the seasons. The seasons also affected the conversations we had a little bit. On a sunny day the weather makes you speak about things differently than on a rainy day. And I enjoyed that sense of time passing.

CR: How did you feel upon hearing the really emotional stories, like the one about the man's father with dementia?

MR: It was very moving. It was humbling, because we didn't even really have a chance to build a relationship in a classic sense, where you get someone to know you and you get to show them how much you care, and eventually you might get the person to open up to you. Because we weren't looking for anything in particular, and we weren't fishing for anything, we just received whatever it was that the person wanted to say or to let go of. It felt okay to receive these intimate moments. He shared the story about his dad because he wanted to give it to us.

CR: It seems that it also has to do with what a person wants to pass on to others. I think you see what kind of person someone is based on what they pass on, like the kindness the man showed when he'd shared about his depression, and he urged anyone else who'd felt that way to talk to someone and not suffer. I think that's what made the inspirational portion of the film. I know you only spoke to the runners for ten minutes, but did you hear anything from them after film came out?

MR: Well, we made it a point of not stopping anyone, not ever. Not before, not after. We had them shout their emails into the camera as their contact information, and then wrote to everyone after the rough cut. Some people were really surprised about how much they'd said to us. I'm very, very grateful to all of them for having agreed to be in the film. I've never asked them what's happened to them since the film, because our relationships were so fleeting, it would feel intrusive to ask them about their lives if I were to ever run into them in the street. But the whole experience was a privilege. It was amazing.

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Don't miss Matan's website for more on his work and life. Banyak Films is a documentary and production company with a killer catalogue. Go and check it out. My deepest thanks again to Matan.

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