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Wanted to tell a story that is a tribute to street children, says German filmmaker Jan Philipp Weyl

Weyl was inspired by Salaam Bombay (1988) and Slumdog Millionaire (2008) for his film Running Against The Wind, which is set in Ethiopia.

Sukhpreet Kahlon

German director Jan Philipp Weyl’s Ethiopian drama Running Against The Wind (2019) tells the story of two boys, Abdi and Solomon, who dream big and wish to chase their dreams despite the odds. Abdi wants to be a long-distance runner while Solomon has a creative eye and dreams of becoming a professional photographer.

The film was selected as the official entry from Ethiopia for Best International Feature Film at the 92nd Academy Awards. It was also screened as part of the International Film Festival of India in January 2021.

Speaking about the film's Indian connection, Weyl revealed that he was inspired by Mira Nair’s classic Salaam Bombay (1988). “I came across the film in 2007 and immediately bought the DVD," he said. "I had a rough idea back then what kind of first feature film I would like to do. I didn’t have the story, but I had the idea for Running Against The Wind in 2008. But back then, in my early 20s, I was watching and consuming as many films as possible. The very first film which changed my life was City Of God (2002). I wanted to become a filmmaker from an early age, but once I watched City Of God I knew I really wanted to become a storyteller. And then I watched Salaam Bombay and the parallels between Running Against The Wind and Salaam Bombay are way closer than with City Of God.”

The oldest child of a working-class family, Weyl was always drawn to the streets and the struggles of people without a shelter. The story and spirit of street children was something he wanted to capture in his film.

In addition to Nair’s film, he watched Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire (2008), which also made an impression upon him, making him feel a certain familiarity with India and its culture.

“When I came to India for the first time, I had the feeling that I know it already," the filmmaker said. "Speaking about it is hilarious because it’s impossible to know India in its entirety ever, but when I came here I got the feeling that I will never forget where everything reminded me of Salaam Bombay. And then I watched Slumdog Millionaire in the evening and the next morning watched the sunrise at the Taj Mahal. Those are things I will never forget. I wanted to tell a story which is a tribute to street children.”

Weyl was invited to Ethiopia by Austrian-German actor and philanthropist Karlheinz Böhm in 2005 to see the work that his foundation, Menschen für Menschen, was doing. This opportunity made Weyl, then just 18, think about the stories that resonated within him, which he wanted to share with the world. In 2008, he wrote the script for the film and the rest, as they say, is history.

A still from Running Against The Wind

Describing the connections between some of his influences and the film he has made, Weyl said, “In Ethiopia we watch a lot of 'Bollywood' [commercial Hindi] movies, it’s really common. So many people know Bollywood movies. There are even Bollywood movies translated into Amharic. The only thing that matters, to say it in one sentence, emotions are universal because everyone is wishing that he or she is loved and there is a community of family and friendship. This is what brings us together and will never change. This is the core, the base.”

While Ethiopia has submitted films for the Academy Awards in previous years, Running Against The Wind was the first time a film was sent to the awards for consideration by the government of the country. Describing it as “an outstanding honour for me as a German citizen”, Weyl said, “I am really proud to say that we made the road for every future Ethiopian filmmaker to apply for his or her film to the ministry of culture and there is now an infrastructure to submit films to the Academy.”

Given the several connections between the two countries, India and Ethiopia, the filmmaker expressed his wish for the film to be remade in India, saying, “I would really love to not copy it but adapt it in India, really adapt every value, the emotional peaks, emotional bridges, and tell it for India. The parallels start with the richness of India and the richness of Ethiopia, the variety and diversity of cultures within the country and the languages."

In 2016, Weyl made a feature, Buena Vista Chico, that was shot in Cuba. Legendary Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami was the executive producer of the film but, sadly, he died before Weyl had a chance to show him the first cut. The film remains unreleased.

However, Weyl has moved on and his next feature is based on the true story of Terry Hitchcock, who completed 75 marathons in 75 consecutive days, running over 3,000 miles, to raise awareness about single parenthood. A documentary on Hitchcock, My Run (2009), was screened at the Austin Film Festival. “That is a film I am privileged to realize as a director,” said Weyl about his next project.

Running Against The Wind is currently travelling the international festival circuit.

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