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The inspirational trail running documentary Mira

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Lantau photographer Lloyd Belcher slips into the director’s chair once again for his latest documentary, Mira – the story of a Nepalese village girl turned trail-running superstar. Elizabeth Kerr reports.

A Cinderella story without the faux princess, Mira is essentially a document of its star’s roots and history as a young girl with limited choices in Nepal, her awakening as a runner and eventual near-domination of trail running. Beginning with images that put 26-year-old Mira Rai’s early life into context, the film follows her quest for a World Skyrunning title (something like the trail running equivalent of tennis or golf grand slams) in races in Italy, Australia, Spain and France.

“Mira’s is an amazing story,” says Tung Chung-based photographer and filmmaker Lloyd Belcher. “She started running competitively two years ago and she’s won every race she’s entered.” A photography shoot with her led to a conversation about her life, how it’s shaped her sport, and then the film.

Whirlwind success

Mira’s nearly unheard of success forms the bedrock of the narrative, as it should in any good sport movie. And like any good sport movie, it is just one thread woven with others to form a larger tapestry that tells a bigger picture. Mira isn’t allegorical; it’s not that sophisticated, nor is it trying to be. But nonetheless it’s an affecting portrait of a woman taking control of her own destiny in a place where she isn’t traditionally expected or allowed to.

It should go without saying that Mira’s best moments come from its visuals: Lloyd is a photographer first. And as can be expected, he lets his pictures do the talking early on. The film starts with almost lyrical images of Mira training in the mountains, a light mist below her. Her bleak-beautiful hometown is never made to feel like purgatory. It just is. The urban grey of Kathmandu, where she relocates to train properly after her first surprise win, is punctuated with flashes of vibrant colour – fruit, flowers and fabrics in the markets, Mira’s bright-blue training gear – that provide a graceful, unspoken sense of identity.

Lloyd, himself an avid trail runner, is best known for 2012’s Lantau 100, The Most Beautiful Thing (2013) and More Than A Race (2014). His chronicles of prominent Asian ultra-marathons are one part sports documentary and one part enlightening travelogue. “I try to do something different. It can’t lean just toward action, or music and running, or words,” he reasons. It follows then that in Mira, there’s no narrated voiceover – Lloyd leaves viewers to their own inferences, channelling the great Frederick Wiseman in the process.

Blasphemous as it may be to say out loud, given the role model she is and one of the many tacit messages in Lloyd’s documentary, in a just world Mira would be in New Balance’s (or any big-ticket multinational sports gear manufacturer’s) sponsorship crosshairs. That she is not, and still pursues her sport in relative obscurity, says as much about the world we live in as it does about the young phenom.

Mira has all the makings of a great sport hero: she’s a natural talent who isn’t into doping, and a strong, healthy, beautiful young woman with a solid message for girls and girls’ sport everywhere. Too bad she’s so brown. But that’s another movie altogether. This one is a must-see for anyone with a respect for pure athleticism – or a daughter.

Images: Courtesy of Lloyd Belcher Visuals

Mira (directed by Lloyd Belcher. 42 minutes, unrated) is now playing at vimeo.com/ondemand/miraraifilm. The Chinese version is available at vimeo.com/ondemand/mirachinese.

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