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“Boston: The Documentary” and the big picture


The following is a personal essay by Jill Geer, USATF chief marketing officer. She is in Boston for the 2017 Boston Marathon.

On Saturday afternoon, I walked around Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood on a beautiful, sunny day. I picked up my credentials, went to the expo, and ducked into the Nike Store on Newberry Street to check out the swag. I walked down to the Charles River, then toddled back to Boylston Street. As I waited to cross Boylston to return to my hotel on Huntington Avenue, I looked down and saw a few flowers and notes placed on the ground, in front of what is now a Starbucks.

It was the spot where the second bomb had gone off at the 2013 Boston Marathon; the one that killed 8-year-old Martin Richard.

Then I realized that it was April 15, the fourth anniversary of the bombing.

Every person who has a connection to the Boston Marathon has a Boston Marathon story. I lived in Greater Boston for 10 years, and my job being what it is, nearly every person I work with was either there or somehow affected by the events at the 2013 Boston Marathon. I had been at the marathon for work, accompanied by my family, but was beginning my trip back to Indianapolis when my phone started going haywire with people asking if I was OK.

The days that followed will, I hope, never be repeated in Boston: lockdowns, shoot-outs, shelter-in-place orders. As bizarre and intense as it was, in the scope of global terror attacks, it was actually a “small” event.

But the thing is, as more time goes by, it seems to affect people more and more deeply and intensely, myself included. And for a person whose job it is to find the right words, it is very difficult to use words to explain how and why that is.

I couldn’t really put this all together until I was watching “Boston: The Documentary” at the Wang Theater Saturday night. The film made its world premiere less than a mile from where the bombs went off.

The film describes itself as providing a history of the Boston Marathon, which it does. It says it celebrates the world’s oldest marathon, which it does.

Make no mistake: 2013 is the absolute center of this film; its emotional core and its defining quality.

The documentary provides footage I have never seen: Kathrine Switzer’s 235-pound boyfriend taking out Jock Semple, behind-the-scenes shots of what it takes for the city and the BAA to put on the marathon, historical footage from the early 20th century, and more.

It explains the difference between the old and young Johnny Kelleys – two different guys, not related. Clarence, Amby, Greg, Joanie, Catherine, Billy, Juma, Deek … they are all in there. Race Director Dave McGillivray provides the consistent, all-Boston, all-the-time voice, literally and figuratively. Dave himself is a man worthy of a documentary, and I loved every minute he was on screen. When Dave speaks, the essence of the marathon speaks.

But director John Dunham takes that history and that local flavor and uses it all as a precursor to 2013, with the 2014 marathon providing the climax and resolution.

The film is full of light-hearted moments and funny quips. When Toshihiko Seiko describes Bill Rodgers as “like a rabbit. He was cute, with lively eyes,” he rivals Confucius for speaking the truth clearly, with few words. Anytime Bill Rodgers is speaking, your heart lifts; when he and Frank Shorter are interviewed together, you almost feel as though you are watching a skit. The audience that filled the Wang Theater broke into applause countless times during the film, in recognition of beloved BAA staff members or in salutation of memorable moments.

But when the film got to 2013, the theater turned silent. The air was filled with a mix of so many emotions that every person in those seats could undoubtedly feel in the middle of their chests. What I felt – in the air, projected from others, as well as from my own soul – was grief. And unity.

I wasn’t at the finish line when the bombs went off. No one I knew was seriously hurt. My life wasn’t impacted in a functional way.

And yet, and yet, and yet.

That bombing, this film. It evokes all those amorphous, tangible, powerful things that I still can’t adequately put on paper. Even as I type right now, looking out my hotel room window at Boston, tears roll down my face.

A film that moves you is a film you should see.

To be sure, the reaction of everyone in that theater was and is deeply rooted in a personal connection to the race, the city, the sport, or the people involved. There are millions of Americans who don’t have any of those things, and those millions may not “get” the film, if they see it.

Almost any runner has some kind of connection to or appreciation of Boston, even if they never have or never will run it.  Almost everyone with any kind of connection to Boston or New England will be moved.

As highly educated as Boston is as a city, and as much as it has become an international business hub, it remains wholly and proudly provincial. The city is THEIRS. This race is THEIRS. The identity is THEIRS. And with that powerful sense of self and place comes a powerful reaction when that self, that place, is attacked or when it is united.

“Boston: The Documentary” shows how the city and the global running community united.

Of course, there are things in the film I might have done differently. I wish Meb Keflezighi, the man who defied everyone’s expectations by winning the 2014 Boston Marathon – holding off a late-race charge as his legs were starting to fail him – could have been more celebrated and central to the story. I had to force myself to stop applauding when the film showed him crossing the finish line, just as I had to force myself to stop crying when I watched him win, back in 2014, as I watched the race from USATF’s conference room.

Then again, the underselling of Meb’s moment makes a powerful point: the race and the city is bigger than the man, bigger than everyone’s story. And it perfectly jibes with Meb himself, a man who is strong and powerful but humble and focused on things much larger than himself.

In the end, it is the message of a sign Martin Richard had made that is a centerpiece of the story.

“No more hurting people – Peace.”

Boston isn’t just about a city. It’s about “a people.” Those people – they will love the film. Please go see it on April 19.

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