Profiles in struggle: ‘Runner’ and ‘My Darling Vivian’

Guor Mading Maker, a refugee who became an Olympic athlete, in Runner

By Richard Ades

Two very different kinds of heroism are on display in documentaries coming out this weekend. One centers on a refugee-turned-Olympic athlete, the other on a celebrity wife and mother-turned-forgotten woman.

First up is Runner, the story of Guor Mading Maker, who was born in Sudan during a decades-long struggle between the Arabic/Muslim northern region and his own African/Christian south.

Director Bill Gallagher uses somber animation to depict Guor’s early years, when his parents reluctantly sent him away for his own safety. But “safety” is a relative term in the midst of a civil war, as he was captured by the enemy and, after escaping, spent four years of his boyhood totally on his own.

Guor’s fortunes finally changed due to a chance encounter with an aunt and uncle, who took him to the U.S. and settled in New Hampshire. There—as the documentary relates via interviews with former high school classmates and coaches—he discovered that running was not merely a survival tool but a sport and even the possible key to a college education and a promising future.

The bulk of the documentary deals with Guor’s Olympic aspirations, which were spread out over several years and were inextricably linked to the political situation in his homeland. He first opted to compete under an international banner, having no desire to run on behalf of the country that destroyed much of his family and nearly killed him. However, when a peace deal opened the possibility that southern Sudan would gain its independence, he had hopes of joining the new country’s first Olympic team.

Most sports fiction eventually leads to a rousing scene of hard-won triumph. Confined by reality, Gallagher’s film can’t do that, but it does deliver stark glimpses of the pain and frustration of competition, mixed with moving depictions of cultural pride and long-delayed reunions. Most of all, it introduces us to a man who has maintained his determination and integrity despite obstacles most of us can’t even imagine.

My Darling Vivian
Vivian Liberto and Johnny Cash during the early, happy years of their marriage

This weekend’s other new documentary, My Darling Vivian, pays homage to the Catholic schoolgirl who became Johnny Cash’s first wife and bore most of his children. Directed by Matt Riddlehoover, it serves as a counterpoint to the 2005 Cash biopic Walk the Line, which some feel was a misrepresentation of who Vivian Liberto really was.

Riddlehoover’s main witnesses are Vivian’s four daughters: singer Rosanne Cash and younger sisters Kathy, Cindy and Tara. Interviewed separately and only occasionally disagreeing on minor details, they present a comprehensive picture of the difficult life their mother led as Cash’s wife, and of the nearly invisible existence she led as his ex-wife. Family photos and archival footage help bring the story to life.

Obviously, the film will appeal most to Cash fans, particularly early scenes that detail how the couple met, fell in love and engaged in a long-distance courtship while Johnny finished his military service. But the account of their difficult marriage, during which Vivian was left to watch over the girls and assorted animals while her husband was away on tour for months at a time, should awaken even non-fans’ empathy. And few will fail to see the injustice of what happened to Vivian after their divorce, when the public forgot her as Johnny and new wife June Carter Cash became the music scene’s new darlings.

The doc makes two things clear: (1) Johnny Cash was an impossible man to live with; and (2) Vivian loved him anyway and always would. It’s also clear that Vivian’s daughters loved her and were eager to undo the damage they felt Walk the Line and time itself had done to her reputation. My Darling Vivian gives them the chance to do just that.

Runner: 4½ stars (out of 5)
My Darling Vivian: 4 stars

My Darling Vivian is available from VOD outlets beginning June 19. For information on how to watch Runner, visit


Author: Richard Ades

Richard Ades was the arts editor of The Other Paper, a weekly news-and-entertainment publication, from 2008 until it was shut down on Jan. 31, 2013. He also served as TOP's theater critic throughout its 22-year existence.

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