Aspen Times Weekly: Running for Their Lives |

Aspen Times Weekly: Running for Their Lives

by Andrew Travers
Julius Arile in "Gun Runners." The documentary will screen on Friday in Aspen and Carbondale at the Aspen Filmfest.
Georgina Goodwin/Courtesy photo |

If You Go …

What: The 38th annual Aspen Filmfest

When: Through Sunday, Sept. 25

Where: Wheeler Opera House, Aspen; Crystal Theatre, Carbondale

How much: $20/GA

Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office; Bonfire Coffee;

For years, the world has watched Kenyans and other East Africans top the podiums in racing’s biggest marathons. Rarely, though, do we see where they come from or what it takes just to get to the starting line.

Arile & Matanda

“Gun Runners,” a decade in the making, offers an intimate profile of two Kenyan men on their transformative journey from lives as gun-toting outlaws to a race-training program and beyond.

“Whatever our dream is or our path, there are going to be obstacles and the biggest of those are within us. It’s about what it takes to change our lives, what the dream is, what holds us back and what propels us forward.”- Anjali nayar, filmmaker

Julius Arile and Robert Matanda fought among the violent bands of cattle rustlers roving the bush in northern Kenya, stealing cattle and raiding ranches to make a living. The men traded in their illegal AK-47s as part of a government-run amnesty program. In exchange, they received running shoes and race training.

The pair had grown close as outlaws. At the outset of the film, Arile, a reluctant warrior, has already given up his gun. Matanda, who had commanded 500 men and become an infamous rustler, is resistant to disarming.

“To surrender the gun is not easy,” Matanda says in the film. “I killed, I stole the cows. It’s better for me to stay in the bush.”

Asked how many people he has killed, Matanda closes his eyes and goes silent. He eventually follows Arile to train and compete in the Tegla Larube Peace Race.

From there, the pair’s paths diverge and the film follows them over the ups and downs of eight years. The result is not just a feel-good sports movie or a journalistic exposé about guns in Africa, but a transcendent piece of storytelling and a nuanced portrait of two fascinating and complicated men.

Arile gets a manager and begins running in international competitions, training alongside Kenyan world champions while also stepping on to the global stage to tackle the issue of small arms proliferation in Africa. He goes to the United Nations, where he is greeted by Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and wins the Run Until Violence Stops race in New York City.

Yet he struggles to win prize money and to develop his elite talent because he doesn’t follow training plans, and clashes with his family about his running. Matanda’s talent doesn’t immediately thrust him onto the global stage. He stays at home, becoming a community leader and political campaigner and focusing on educating his children. Meanwhile, he grows jealous of Arile.

“He abandoned me. … He forgot the warriors, the community,” Matanda says. “He’s forgotten completely.”

Both men have internal conflicts to overcome before they can reconcile with one another and with the peaceful lives they’re trying to embrace.

Produced by the National Film Board of Canada and directed by Montreal-born, Nairobi-based filmmaker Anjali Nayar, “Gun Runners” premiered earlier this year at the Hot Docs Festival in Toronto and has its U.S. premiere at the Aspen Filmfest on Friday, Sept. 23.

Nayar says she found a universal story in these two men as they made their way out of the bush but still struggled to make a better life for themselves and their families.

“Whatever our dream is or our path, there are going to be obstacles and the biggest of those are within us,” Nayar said via Skype from Nairobi. “It’s about what it takes to change our lives, what the dream is, what holds us back and what propels us forward.”


The director first met Arile and Matanda on the finish line of a peace race in northern Kenya.

“They were these two characters that were just larger than life,” she recalls.

They described to her how they developed their running skills: by fleeing from police and fellow warriors while rustling cattle, sometimes running as far as 100 kilometers. Fascinated, Nayar dug deeper.

“I don’t think I was like, ‘Yes, it’s going to be a film,’” she says. “At the time it was more like, ‘Wow, I want to know more.’ … It wasn’t until later that I actually realized we were making a film.”

Working as a journalist at the time, she befriended the men, got to know their families, and traveled to see them on weekends. In 2012, she collected the audio and video she’d recorded over the years and began crafting it into what would become “Gun Runners.”

Kenyan novelist Binyavanga Wainana — who has several times been a guest of Aspen Words — served as a story consultant.

As the film tells Arile’s and Matanda’s stories, it’s evident that they are extraordinarily charismatic men, but also quite proud. The road to redemption in “Gun Runners” is a rocky one for both of them. The rich, and often unflattering, detail in “Gun Runners” is the result of years Nayar spent getting to know them and earning their trust.

“I had the luxury of time to follow these men and to be intimate without being pushy,” she says.

Because Nayar put in those years to build relationships with the men, she brings some revelatory personal moments to the screen. For instance, as Arile struggles in early international competition and fails to bring home prize money for his family, his siblings and mother hold a meeting where they berate him for not contributing to the family income. His mother mocks the trophies he’s brought home.

“You bring us these things and we wonder, how do you eat such things?”

she asks him.

And Matanda, with a failing maize crop and foundering political fortunes, has to go to his children’s school and explain why he can’t pay their tuition. His wife, Stella, admonishes him: “I don’t want to hear about politics! It has finished all our money.”

Nayar, Arile and Matanda watched the film together in Nairobi in the spring.

At its conclusion, she recalls, she asked them if she had made any mistakes in telling their story.

“[Arile] said, ‘You didn’t make any mistakes, we were the ones that made mistakes,’” she recalls. “And Matanda said, ‘I was so busy looking at Arile and he was so busy looking at me that we both ended up going backwards.’ … It wasn’t about how they were perceived or how I treated them, it was more about the truth and what they could learn from it.”

Arile is aiming for a top 10 finish in next month’s Toronto Waterfront Marathon, following the film’s Oct. 7 theatrical release in Canada. Bond/360 will distribute the film in the U.S. Plans for a worldwide on-demand release have yet to be announced.


Tragedy struck just before “Gun Runners” began making its way to a global audience.

In April, Matanda and his wife were killed in a bus accident while traveling home from Nairobi, where they watched the film with Arile and Nayar. The Matandas’ 4-year-old daughter, Anjali (named after the filmmaker) was injured but survived. All seven of the Matanda children — five of them still school-aged — were orphaned.

Nayar and the creative team behind “Gun Runners” have since mobilized to take care of the children, providing them with art therapy and starting a trust fund to pay for their medical care and education. A related and ongoing GoFundMe campaign has raised $15,000 toward its $28,000 goal. Nayar has sometimes taken the five young Matanda children into her home in Nairobi during school breaks.

“It’s been a really hard year,” Nayar says. “There was this transition that happened from the loss to the realization of how I could help and how I would need to step up and for our entire team to step up.”

Having spent 10 years with Matanda, his extended family and his community, Nayar knew the children would be on their own following the accident and that, without monetary support, they would lose the education that Matanda had sought to provide them.

“It was clear to me that the children would not be cared for by the family,” she explains. “We’re doing everything we can to make sure that they feel loved and that they’re cared for.”

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