Documentary Film Review – Skid Row Marathon

IMG_6565I don’t normally include reviews of films, but after seeing a screening of Skid Row Marathon earlier this week I feel inspired to share a few thoughts.

I first heard about this film last year on the Marathon Talk podcast as host Martin Yelling had been instrumental in bringing the film to the UK for a screening in London. Sadly that was a bit too far for us to travel, but we were both really keen to see it so when we heard that selected cinemas around the country would be showing a one-off screening this month, we made sure to get tickets.

The film follows four runners from LA’s Skid Row who, under the guidance of criminal court judge Craig Mitchell, rise from the streets to run marathons around the world. We see them battle their demons, form friendships and, ultimately, find dignity as they strive to fulfil their potential.

Those of us who run already know how empowering running can be, how life-changing. I know for me running, and marathon running in particular, changed everything I previously believed about myself and made me stronger (both mentally and physically) and more confident: if I can run a marathon, I can do anything.

When Judge Craig Mitchell was approached by a defendant he had previously sentenced and invited to visit the Midnight Mission, a homeless shelter which was helping him back on his feet, he decided to start a running club. The judge hoped that by getting these people running, he could help them to get their lives back on track through applying the lessons learned from running to their personal lives. The premise is simple: stay clean and out of prison, and Judge Mitchell will take his runners around the world to take part in marathons. Indeed we are shown scenes of him calling contacts to raise the massive amount of funds required for this undertaking. The fact that so many are willing to support the endeavour is truly heart-warming.

The runners followed throughout the film have all been homeless, were former addicts and one had committed murder in his youth and served many years in prison. One of the incredible things about the way filmmakers Mark and Gabriele Hayes have put this film together is that we ultimately side with the runners. We want them to succeed in their goals and can see the difference being part of the Midnight Runners (the name of the running group) has made to them. If we were being honest, would we really say that we would feel that way had we been told of their past history separately to the running? Sadly I suspect we would not, we would cast judgments and assume they had no potential. Yet a theme which was prominent in this film was that no single act defines a person and that everyone deserves a second chance. This was certainly true of the runners featured in the film and is a lesson we should all embrace.

Yes, this is a film about running, but not the physical act of running, this is about the transformative power of running and the psychological battles. When former addicts are faced with a challenge, do they have the strength to spur themselves on or will they be defeated? Finding the inner strength and community support to make the right decision is what sparks change and gives them new hope.

Sitting in the cinema I truly ran the gamut of emotions: I cried, I was shocked and I even laughed as there were light-hearted moments which, in a cinema full of runners, generated a lot of laughs e.g. runners smoking or vaping before and after runs, or the scene where two of the runners were getting vaccinations ahead of travel to Africa and were told to stay away from the monkeys – their reactions were priceless!! But at the end of the film, I was speechless. I couldn’t believe how inspiring, uplifting and empowering the film had been. I found what Judge Mitchell had done extraordinary and was both moved and humbled by the scenes of the runners taking part in marathons for the first time. For one-time addicts and homeless people to be running marathons in Africa and Italy was amazing. It was a real reminder that everyone has goodness within them, and that the act of running wields powers of redemption, empowerment and transformation.

In addition to the main film we were also treated to a 10-minute short focusing on that transformative power of running and featuring running luminaries such as Jo Pavey, Paul Sinton-Hewitt, Vassos Alexander and, of course, Martin Yelling talking about what running means to them, how it has shaped their lives and provided inspiration. It was a wonderful start to the evening and the short film ended with a fantastic poem written and performed by Molly Case which you can listen to on her website.

Sadly this was a one-time screening, but hopefully the film will become more widely available soon. If you have seen it, I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. If you haven’t, I really hope you get the chance to. It’s the sort of film that everyone should get the chance to see.

You can read more about Skid Row Marathon here.

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