Just before a critical track meet in the brilliant documentary Freedom Runners, Rotem Genossar — the teacher, coach, friend, and, in some respects, guardian angel of Eritrean asylum seeker in Israel Rachel Gebretsadik — says to Rachel that she is grown up. “In front of David’s lens. You used to be so little,” he observes.
Little she is not. By the time the film is through, it is the viewer who feels little. Little compared to the enormous fortitude of the people featured in the film. Little compared to the challenges posed for Israeli society through the story of the asylum seekers. Little compared to the dedication and humanity of Rotem and the few other Israeli Jews who seem to understand who these kids, these families are and why it’s so critical to help them.
Freedom Runners, at first blush, is a story we’ve seen many times before: a tale of outsiders, of the have-nots coming together through sport to compete for acceptance. There are any number of familiar moments that could lead the viewer to start to tune out.
But these “Alley Athletes,” as they call themselves, are not just competing for acceptance – they are competing for their lives. The students profiled in the movie have already run for their lives, literally, from the brutality of Eritrea and Sudan. When Rotem sets up a running club for them for fun, they soon realize that many of them have true talent and the potential to compete at not only national but international levels.
To compete internationally, of course, one usually needs a home country; it was only in the 2016 Summer Olympics, after this film was made, that a “refugee team” was recognized. So, the essential question of the film is whether Israel can become their home. The students hope so, and they are willing to overcome protests, rule changes, and bias from all corners to do it.
Having run against the odds to get away from one home, they must now run even faster and against possibly even longer odds to try to settle in a new home.
If there is a drawback to the film, it is that a lot is packed in to 49 minutes. If you are not familiar with the crisis around East African asylum seekers to Israel – why they flee from their countries and the harsh treatment they receive in Israel – it may be hard to digest the impact of the passing snippets of diatribes or protests.
But even without the background, the impact of the story is clear. Had this film been shown six months ago, or following a Hillary Clinton victory, it would have been an important and compelling insight into a tragic situation in Israel, one that challenges the notion of how a Jewish state built principally by refugees from genocide and oppression can deal so harshly with those facing the same fate today.
Now it is a frightening yet essential mirror on what we will likely face in the United States under a Trump regime that seeks to ban refugees from the worst humanitarian crisis on earth, and to deport millions of people – not “illegals” – already here. The heartbreak, the challenge, the resolve, and the potential. All of it is soon to play out here, and Freedom Runners can be both a warning to Jews concerned about the state of society in Israel, and a guide to what we may be asking ourselves in the coming months.
Mid-way through the film, Rachel describes a utopian country she would like to live in. No one wants to run from their homeland, she explains with a directness that could stop even the most ardent xenophobe. No one wants to leave their home, but if they do, they certainly don’t want to end up in a place that treats them so harshly.
Find me a country that doesn’t discriminate, she pleads. Are there any?
As American Jews, we want to believe that both of the countries with which we are tied could be the answer to Rachel’s prayer. But as this film shows, sadly, neither seems ready to be right now.
So Rachel and those like her may have to keep running to freedom.