Bicycle film festivals are a phenomenon of the current cycling boom, presenting new bicycle-themed films to audiences, as well as collating older films. As well as various one-off events, such as the cycling-related programme of the 2014 Sheffield International Documentary Film Festival that coincided with the first two Yorkshire-based stages of the 2014 Tour de France, there are regular events such as the European ‘International Cycling Film Festival’ and the ‘Bicycle Film Festival’. In July I attended two days of the ‘Bicycle Film Festival’ in Brighton, although, appropriately enough, this is a mobile festival that also visits the Netherlands, Italy, Mexico and Australia later this year.


The programme brought together a very eclectic group of short films and, as one would expect from a festival that is inspired by an enthusiasm for bicycles and cycling cultures, the films were largely celebratory, and were sometimes underpinned by an idealistic, optimistic ‘bicycle politics’ or activism, such as Cranks (Kyo-Min Jung, Tom Michelow, 2016), a film about a volunteer bike-repair workshop in Brighton conceived as a critical response to ‘throwaway culture’, or Cycling Circle (Jean-Marc Joseph, 2015) a film about an entrepreneur setting up a small-scale bicycle messenger business in Lebanon, a country that is intensively car-dependent. While the majority of the films screened were documentaries, there was a wild Estonian animation, Velodrool (Sander Joon, 2015) about cigarette-obsessed racing cyclists, an Australian black comedy, Bear (Nash Edgerton, 2015), about a boorish bloke who plays a misjudged practical joke on his girlfriend’s birthday as she is cycling through the bush, and I want to ride my bicycle (James Chamberlain, 2016), a brief comedy about a man who goes on holiday to Centre Parcs with his bicycle, ‘Denise’, and is shown talking about his feelings for her and lounging in the sauna with it. Absurd though it was, the film captures the intimate, fetishistic relationship some cyclists have with their bikes, a point that was made clear by the fact several audience members had brought their folding bikes with them into the auditorium and were sitting next to them watching the films.


There were several examples of the extreme sports documentary including In Search of the Storm (Shaktiraj Jadeja, 2015), an Indian film about three friends who set out to ride ‘fat bikes’ through the Himalayas in the winter to reach the border with Tibet. This type of film, variations of which feature kayaking, horse-riding, skiing, mountain running, and climbing, has a number of well-established generic conventions: spectacular landscapes, a blend of professional cinematography and low-resolution footage shot by the participants, narratives that are based around journeys, and talking-head interviews with the protagonists who emphasise repeatedly how difficult and extreme the arbitrary challenge they’ve set themselves is, and also how the challenge represents some sort of metaphor: these narcissistic extreme athletes are continually ‘finding themselves’ on their travels, becoming more psychologically and emotionally complete as a result of successfully negotiating an unclimbed alpine peak or navigating an unexplored river.

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The film that left a particularly sour taste was Ethiopia Epic, which, like many extreme sports documentaries, was essentially a promotional film for the sponsor. This short film – far from ‘epic’ – showed European and Canadian professional mountain bikers tearing around the Semien mountains in Ethiopia. One of the riders having explained how unique the challenge is, the film then shows them riding their bikes over rocky peaks and then riding past farmers and villagers, pulling wheelies and jumping off ramps, and even racing through a building in the centre of a hill-side village of basic wooden shacks topped with corrugated metal roofs. The film epitomizes a culture of poverty tourism in which the crowds of smiling children dressed in filthy, patched and faded clothing are part of the colourful backdrop to this physically challenging and unique holiday. As one rider reflects to camera, ‘Man, you can’t get that experience anywhere, and we had to do this work to get up there and have this sort of in-depth experience with the culture that we wouldn’t have otherwise.’ For these riders, the world is a source of intense, consumable experiences, and it seems the spectacle of extreme poverty adds intensity to the experience of travelling at speed through unfamiliar and dramatic landscapes. It demonstrates, inadvertently, how extreme sports culture is a reiteration of an extractive colonial worldview that sees the world as its playground. It is there to be exploited, albeit under an alibi of cultural engagement and self-improvement.

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This worldview was shared to some extent by the keynote film of the festival, Lucas Brunelle goes to Chernobyl (Brunelle, 2015). Brunelle, a former racer and courier, has produced some stunning films using a helmet-cam rig to shoot hyper-kinetic point-of-view footage of the terrifying experience of riding through urban traffic, particularly during illegal ‘alleycat’ races. In this film, partly prompted by the director’s Ukrainian family heritage, Brunelle meets a group of people in Kiev and, after being dropped in a forest at night, they wade across a river into the exclusion zone around Chernobyl and then hike cross-country, carrying their bikes over their shoulders before reaching the city, where they camp in abandoned buildings. They cycle around the empty city before returning to Kiev where they have a party to celebrate the trip. The film inevitably recalls Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), and, indeed, one brief shot shows a cyclist passing a concrete bus shelter graffitied with the word, ‘STALKER’, suggesting that Brunelle may be aware of this parallel, but the contemplative stillness of Tarkovsky’s film is replaced here with a constantly mobile camera and choppy editing, slow-motion passages providing only occasional relief. It is a frustrating film as there is virtually no information offered about the place and its history, or the identity of Brunelle’s companions and how he knows them, and the reliance upon the mobile camera means that we are also not able to see much of the place. Having made his way to this location – without explaining why it was necessary to do it in this ‘extreme’ way when organized tours are available – all he needed to do was film the space. Static shots and still photographs of this abandoned city would be fascinating enough. Instead the film culminates with the ‘Tour of Chernobyl’ as they ride together through the city and an abandoned funfair, accompanied by music, Brunelle high-fiving one of his companions. Having capered around this vast memorial to the dead and those still dying from the effects of the reactor explosion, they come across ‘the infamous claw’, a highly radioactive hydraulic grab that was apparently used to clear rubble from the reactor, whereupon Brunelle dons rubber gloves and films himself fixing a vinyl sticker to it bearing his signature logo. In voiceover at the end of the film Brunelle reflects that, having visited over 60 countries, this was his most moving trip, however the film reinforces the impression that, like the cyclists in Ethiopia Epic, he sees the world indiscriminately as a series of more or less exotic, exciting spaces through which he can ride his bike.


Far more interesting and moving were two historical accounts of road racing. Milk Race: On and On (Stephen Green, 2016) compiled 16mm footage of the Tour of Britain (sponsored by the Milk Marketing Board) shot in the 1960s, accompanied by commentary from two of the successful riders who featured in the clips, Les West and Roger Pratt. It was a fascinating window into a period when cycle racing was still the province of enthusiastic amateurs. Davis and Connie (Ben Ingham, 2014), is a documentary about another two retired (US) racers, Davis Phinney and Connie Carpenter, who also raced in a period before professional cycling became a corporatised sport; Carpenter’s last race was the road race in the 1984 Olympics – scandalously, the first women’s cycling event to be held at the Olympics. It is a touching portrait of an apparently equal relationship – Davis recalls being starstruck when he first met Connie, who was older and far more successful than he was – and it takes a melancholy turn as it is revealed that Davis is suffering from Parkinson’s disease. There is an irony in one of the fastest racing cyclists in the world being afflicted by a disease that slows him down radically, but he draws a surprising parallel between the calm experience of being in the ‘vortex of speed and noise’ of the peloton when ‘everything is slowed down’ and the experience of Parkinson’s in which everyday tasks become more difficult and focused and, consequently, take on a heightened intensity.

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The most inspiring film of the two-day festival, however, was also one of the more modest films. Mama Agatha (Fadi Hindash, 2015), is a documentary study of a Ghanaian woman, Agatha Frimpong, who runs a course in Amsterdam to teach other immigrant women to cycle. Her students are mostly middle aged and older from a variety of countries including Suriname, Pakistan and China, and have a deep affection for their polyglot teacher, ‘Mama Agatha’. Agatha has helped hundreds of women to learn to ride and the film follows the progress of some of her pupils from learning to straddle their bikes precariously in a gym, learning to negotiate vehicles in an underground car-park and, finally, venturing onto the road in groups. At the ‘graduation ceremony’ when they tearfully receive their cycling proficiency certificates in front of their families it is clear how profoundly important it is to these women to be mobilised in this way. In other words, the film makes a powerful argument for the bicycle’s potential as an empowering machine, giving these women who are marginalised by age, gender and ethnicity, a greater agency and independence.