last night emmy and i went to see a pre-release screening of the ultrarunning documentary "running the sahara!" technically, it wasn't actually a preview. instead, we learned from bill keys, of nehst studios, that the screening was a limited "oscar qualifying" release of film. this very limited screening of the film will permit "running the sahara" to be considered for a possible 2008 oscar nomination in the documentary film category.
preamble aside, the film itself documented the incredible 111 day trek across the sahara desert undertaken by 3 runners, charlie engel (usa), ray zahab (canada), and kevin lin (tiawan), from november 2007 until february 2008. a filmcrew followed them from the start in senegal until they finished at the red sea almost 4 months later. the documentary was underwritten by matt damon's production company, liveplanet, and damon provided the film's narration. the cinematography, just, for example, the overhead panoramas of the desert landscapes and the close-ups of local villages and their denizens, is breathtaking. finally, as an added bonus, we were treated to a diverse multi-ethnic soundtrack straight out of a mickey heart "plant drum" release (the film credits played over u2).
the film is impressive on multiple levels. first, on a purely interpersonal level it was fascinating to watch the bonds build between the runners and crew, then fray and seemingly unravel - dramatically - as the trek ("expedition" seemed to be engel's preferred terminology) went well beyond the estimated finish date. on a running level, the sheer willpower involved to simply get up every day and face the prospect of another 50 or so miles - regardless of conditions (weather, physical, mental, et cetera) - was truly impressive. having done a few ultras, this singular aspect of their accomplishment was simultaneously humbling and inspiring to me! on a logistical level, aside from the sheer magnitude involved in the preparation and transport of the supplies needed to keep them moving forward, the political logistics - especially obtaining the requisite permissions to cross borders - were daunting and, at times, frustrating.
for example, libya's apparent unwillingness to sign off, in advance, on the necessary approvals to enter their country (much less run across it) almost undid the entire enterprise. the film documents the frustrating process (they had been in communication with the various government agencies for 9 months) yield neither a "yes" nor a "no," from libya as they inched closer and closer to the border. ten days out, kevin wanted to quit the trek because the uncertainty of the route was tearing away at him. if they were refused permission, the trek would likely end at libya's border, given the dangerousness alternatives. after a bit of soul-searching, kevin agreed to stay (at least the until the border). then, at the very last minute, permission was secured - with the ensuing travel across libya tightly monitored by security personnel!
as the runners went beyond the estimated 80-100 day window, various members of the crew had to leave for other commitments (some would leave and return). this set charlie off on some seriously unpleasant rants about the lack of commitment to the expedition. it was not fun to watch him rail against crew members who had spent the 3+ months committed to him, the other runners, and the success of the enterprise. he saw it as betrayal, and his behavior at the end was the one sore spot of an otherwise intensely upbeat film. whatever personal issues went on among charlie and his crew, those guys deserved better. stress, and the 111 days of forward motion explains a lot, but in the end - it's not a justification.
in the end, this was a great film. it captured the imposing reality of such a large scale undertaking, while also documenting the fascinating minutiae of their existence in a world of daily ultras. to put into context this accomplishment, runners have done a marathon a day for 50 straight days in 50 states (dean karnazes, most recently). the runners in this film had daily mileage that easily exceeded 26.2 and they ran for twice as long (plus and extra 11 day). they did the equivalent of 170 marathons during the run across the sahara!
not content to cross the sahara, on september 13, charlie engel will set off on a run across the united states. his goal is to complete the trans-continental run in 45 days, setting a new world record in the process.