About six years ago, my cousin Ras sat across from me at a coffee shop in the East Village and told me he had an idea for a movie about Abebe Bikila. At first, I was skeptical. What I knew about Bikila's life at the time--which was very little--didn't seem like the stuff of cinematic gold. He was a marathon runner, who had won a gold medal running barefoot. He had brought pride to his country, and when Ras was pitching me the idea for the script, I could see a patriotic glimmer in his eye. It was interesting, historically and such, but where was the intrigue, the tension? Where was the story?
Over the next few months, as I somewhat grudgingly started to learn more about him, that story started to emerge. The quote that sold me on writing about Bikila was one he'd given during a radio interview before his ill-fated marathon loss in Mexico City in 1968. (During the race, he fractured his femur mid-run, but still kept limp-jogging for a couple miles.) His career on the wane, Bikila was asked by the Ethiopian radio host if his drinking ever got in the way of his running, to which he shot back, "You could dunk me in a barrel of mead and I'd still beat anyone."
Here was a real character, I knew. A trailblazing kind of genius whose life was as tragic as it was heroic. A humble man from the Ethiopian countryside with ego enough to sink your battleship. Next week will mark the 37th anniversary of his untimely death at the age of 41.
Ras and I worked on the screenplay for over a year--researching, outlining, drafting, revising, and, eventually, showing it to potential collaborators. It was the first lap in what would wind up being a very long-distance run to get the film made--a run which was as full of incident and drama as the life it sought to portray.
This is a long, boring introduction to the happy phone call I just received earlier today from my cousin Ras telling me that the six-year marathon he's been running with the filmmaking equivalent of bare feet has just rounded a significant milestone: last week, the film ("The Athlete") was chosen to represent Ethiopia for Best Foreign Film at the 83rd Academy Awards.
There's no unbraggy way of saying this: a film I helped write might be up for an Oscar, shorty.
Now before you go booking your tickets to the Kodak Theater, what this means is simply that "The Athlete" is one of 65 films currently being considered for a Best Foreign Film nomination. For a full list of the selected foreign films, go here. Even if the film doesn't make it to the final round of nominees (stiff competition this year!), which will be announced in January, it's the first film from Ethiopia to ever be considered for an Academy Award, which is pretty cool.
Fingers and feet crossed for January.