There are times when a run is simply a run. Then there are times when running is so much more, and the stories of runners
Running’s power to transform lives, especially the lives of women, is the focus Hoka One One’s new “Women Who Fly” film series by three-time Emmy winning filmmaker and director Joris Debeij. The documentary-style features focus on three athletes—ultrarunners Devon Yanko and Catra Corbett and triathlete Shirin Gerami—and their respective stories of surviving sexual assault, overcoming addiction and flourishing as a female athlete while respecting Muslim dress code and traditions.
Though each film is just 2 minutes long, Debeij, who is from the Netherlands and now lives in Los Angeles, spent time with the women, getting to know them and understand their stories. With running as the key element to each film, Debeij was creative with his filming, positioning a steady cam operator on a rickshaw to capture much of the running footage.
“Through social media, we’ve heard countless stories about how HOKA ONE ONE has allowed a range of people to accomplish previously inconceivable goals. In that light, we wanted to produce a film series about perseverance, dedication and inspiration,” says Wendy Yang, president of HOKA and the Performance Lifestyle Brands at Deckers. “Each of these strong athletes have been transformed by running and we’re excited to share their stories.”
We caught up with Debeij by phone to learn more about the experience of filming of the “Women Who Fly” series, which debuts on Aug. 22.
Catra, Devon and Shirin all have very unique stories. How did you choose them for this project?
“I was approached by HOKA, and they had an idea of what they wanted to do with the project. They also had athletes in mind. We collaborated to choose the finalists. Each woman is empowered by running in a different and profound way. I really wanted to dive into their stories about what drives them and how running enriches their lives.”
What are you hoping to convey about the power of running, not just for these women, for society at large?
“All the subjects and the broader themes they touch upon, sexual abuse, addiction and religious constraints, are tough things to discuss around the world. Running was their way to get through things. Running can be so much more than just the physical and mental challenges. It can create conversations. It can create solutions and shared experiences. It’s about overcoming something. Through something like sports, in this case running, we can have transformative journeys.”
What was the most challenging aspect of making these films for you as the filmmaker?
“If I’m going to tell your story, I want to build a connection and relationship with you. I want to get to know you deeper than a conversation we would have on an elevator. For stories like these, with a lot of emotional layers, you have to be open and careful not to make assumptions. Also we kept the films short. Each could be at least an hour long. But we wanted to keep them concise for an Internet audience.”
You like to blend real life and art in your projects. How do these films speak to that?
“Technically these are documentaries; I’m documenting their lives in a way. As a filmmaker I like to take great care in the visual story telling layer as well. In getting to know subjects, I’m very interested in what their world looks like. I take elements from that world, and bring in a cinematographer to show their life in a visually appealing way with no distractions. Powerful stories require powerful visuals.”
Besides their passion for running, is there a common thread connecting these women?
“In terms of personality, they could not be more different. But running was the pathway to transformative empowerment for each of them What they get from the experience of running and how it changed major things in their lives will never them leave them.
“Devon said it well: A day of running, like when she does an ultramarathon, is like a mini life. She literally cries and laughs during her runs. Catra was able to run by the clubs where she used to hang out. For Shirin, she shows that being Muslim don’t restrict her ability to run. Some people are more introverted, some extroverted. It all comes back to that transformative experience. That’s something really powerful.”
Do you consider yourself a runner?
“I’m someone who always attempts to run, but I wouldn’t call myself a runner. I played soccer growing up. Running and cycling are now my “stop and go” sports depending upon my motivation and schedule.”
How did the experience change your views about running?
“It broadened my view on running. How deeply personal problems can get you stuck in life, but starting to run can help you process certain problems. It was inspiring to see what it can do.”