It is impossible not to have an opinion about British director Gemma Atwal’s film Marathon Boy. Such is the intensity of the story, a sort of Slumdog Millionaire of the documentary world, that it evokes similarly intense emotions – not all of them positive – and raises questions about child exploitation, celebrity and the power of the media. Stream it on 123Movie.
This is perhaps why the documentary is such a favorite with programming committees. Marathon Boy screened at last year’s Sheffield Doc/Fest, and was selected for the Feature-Length Competition at IDFA in Amsterdam in November (this category was eventually won by Dutch film Position Among the Stars).
More recently, the documentary has made the official selection of the 34th Göteborg International Film Festival in Sweden, which runs from January 28 to February 7.
‘Marathon Boy’ Filmed Over Five Years
Marathon Boy was filmed over a period of five years. It was originally intended to be a study of Budhia and his relationship with his coach and adoptive father Biranchi Das. The story grew into something much broader and the controversies at the heart of the film escalated in a way that Atwal could scarcely have imagined when she first began shooting in 2005.
Born in the slums of Bhubaneswar, a town in the Indian state of Orissa, Budhia is sold for 800 rupees to a street peddler who mistreats him. He is eventually taken in by Biranchi, a judo teacher and founder of an orphanage who discovers Budhia’s extraordinary talent for distance running.
Biranchi appoints himself the boy’s coach and they train for increasingly arduous challenges. By the age of three, when Atwal first begins filming him, Budhia has already run six half marathons. By the age of four, he has completed 48 full marathons.
When Budhia runs an incredible 42 miles in around seven hours, he becomes a national superstar. His fame also attracts the attention of social services and Biranchi soon faces allegations of exploitation and abuse.
Budhia’s dream is one day to “run all the way to the Olympics”. As the media frenzy surrounding him builds and stories circulate of the hefty sums that Biranchi has supposedly made from the boy’s appearances, that dream comes to a sudden and tragic halt.
IDFA Documentary Without Easy Conclusions
Shot mostly in cinéma vérité style (the addition of animated sequences distract rather than enhance the movie), Marathon Boy is a compelling but complex story. Without moralizing or drawing easy conclusions, however, Atwal successfully teases out the different characters, interests and perspectives to paint a disturbing picture of the lure of celebrity and the slippery nature of truth.