Bicycle Film Festival: Program 9, 10 & 11

After twelve hours of watching films about bicycles, what is the feeling I’m left with?

Well, apart from a blinking aversion to light and cramp in my legs, I feel like I’m beginning to understand the truth about bicycles and that truth can be summed up in one word:

FREEDOM.

A Swarovski Crystal Low-Rider. Yeah, that’s freedom.

Sorry it’s not more profound than that, but do let me expound a little.

Freedom isn’t just feeling the wind in your hair, although there was plenty of that on show today and throughout the festival. Freedom is the power to be self-reliant, to unbend the yoke that ties us to cars and lorries. There was a short film about the Pedal Co-Op in Philadelphia in the US. They use long trailers attached to their bikes to make green deliveries around the city. For every forty trips they make with these trailers, that’s one truck off the road. It gave me the feeling that anything is possible with pedal power. Why shouldn’t we trade trucks for trailers for use in the local economy?

There was a great little piece about freedom from stereotyping and night buses (I may be reading too much into this one) called Heels on Wheels, in which a bunch of girls go out for the night on bicycles. Why not? I don’t approve of them drinking heavily before setting off, but otherwise, this is a great advert for people using bikes under any circumstance. You don’t have to turn up sweaty, take your time, cycle slow and safe. And so our girls get to the club with all make-up perfectly applied and not a hair out of place. But then the film goes and ruins it all by having one of the bikes stolen. What is it about stealing bikes on today’s program? The only message that comes out of this is: don’t bother, mate, it’ll only get stolen anyway. A bit annoying.

But I love the freedom of Project N. A bunch of kids break into an abandoned gymnasium, set up a bunch of obstacles, drink some beer, roll some spliffs and have some damn good fun. It looks pretty cool to me; but then the police come and shut it down. A bit annoying as well. You can get a taste of it here: http://vimeo.com/10033943.

There was more emphasis on fictional stories in today’s program. The highlight of which was Bicycle Thieves, a classic Italian film from 1948. It’s a film about freedom and poverty. I won’t spoil the plot for you, but the protagonist needs his bike to do his work and when it gets stolen he is driven to further and further extremes of desperation. Sample quote:

There’s a cure for everything – except death!

Don’t worry, be happy (or miserable, like the end of this film).

Jitensha was a Japanese story which reminded me of a Murakami plotline. A loner quits his job because he got punched in the face by a colleague. He cycles around a bit, looking miserable. Then he gets his bike seat nicked. Over the course of the next few days more parts get stolen until our hero just sticks a piece of paper onto the remains of the bike saying, ‘Dear Thief, please take the whole thing.’ The next day, he is surprised to find a reply fixed to the bike, which says, ‘Thank you for your kind offer, but I am not a thief. Sincerely, God.’ When there is nothing left but the bicycle bell, God leaves a package with details of where all the parts are hidden with the message: ‘This is the world in which you live.’ And so our hero rediscovers his sense of purpose and on the way connects with all sorts of people, from a young family to a gang of youths and a street hawker. Eventually he finds the last part, the saddle, with the help of an old man who is using a metal detector on the beach. When the detector goes off, our hero runs over and starts madly digging and then uncovers it, shouting:

‘I found it, I found it!’
‘What did you find?’ the old man asks, meaningfully.
‘My bicycle seat.’
The old man looks at the saddle and says, ‘Sometimes you have to rely on others to find what you are looking for.’

I don’t know why this is profound, but I’m sure it is.

The evening program had some pretty cool features in it, but if I have to watch one more old man welding, I think I’m going to go insane. Seven – I’ve just counted them – that is the number of films which featured old men welding.

Note to film-makers: there is nothing dramatic about welding unless it is with laser beams and they are travelling very slowly between James Bond’s legs towards his groin. 

I’m sure it looks great on film and I appreciate that there isn’t very much dramatic at all about building bikes, but please: no more welding! I kept myself mildly entertained by noting the difference in safety precautions between the US (visor, goggles and gloves), The Netherlands (welding box, like it was radioactive or something) and Japan (bare hands and dark glasses). Having said that, the film about Dario Pegoretti was pretty good actually, once I had finished cursing about the welding. It was pretty good because it was about a real human being who spent most of his time swearing and talking about girls. I learnt that luomar meant a heap of shit in Italian, for example. In fairness, the last of the welding stories was also bearable, but only because of these quotes:

The bicycle is two wheels, a chain and a brake; the bicycle is not the machine. Man is the machine.

and, in allusion to bicycles:

Sometimes ugly girls are beautiful – and all the beautiful ones are beautiful, right?

Can you tell he was Italian too?

But the high point of the day, really, was the sheer exuberant joy of On Time, a blaxploitation flick from 1985, the first big hit for director Ari Taub. Our hero is a bike messenger who has to deliver a package to an address in New York for a 2pm sharp deadline. It’s pretty dramatic, and he ends up with his bike in bits and getting chased by some brothers who think he’s a thief. But when he finally delivers the package, right on time, it explodes. But the real hero of the film was the theme tune, which played pretty much throughout the whole thing:

The wheel’s are turning
And your body’s burning
Meet the deadline everyday
Nothing’s gonna get in our way!

You can check out a preview here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6sWZBb0xwpc – but it ends, tantalisingly, just before the song kicks in.

You know what, I’m going to miss these films, but at least I didn’t miss them. I can only say: you’d better go next year.

Bicycle Film Festival: Program 4,5 & 7

Phew, tough day in the life of a bike film reviewer. Not as tough as for Abdul Aziz, an Afghani asylum seeker who found out today that he is going to be deported on the 10.00am flight from London on Tuesday. Thanks to the new government, there’s a bit of a clear-out of left-over Afghanis going on at the moment. We don’t want them anymore, apparently, so we’re freighting them out at the rate of one flight every week, Tuesdays at 10.00am.

‘What’s that got to do with bikes?’ You may very well ask. Well, Abdul Aziz has been one of the beneficiaries of a wicked little scheme in Bristol called The Bristol Bike Project (all the creative genius has gone into the project, not the name), which takes bikes no one wants anymore and pairs them with people no one wants anymore. After a spot of repair, these bikes are given to the asylum seekers, who struggle to survive on the £35 of Tesco vouchers they’re given every week. I mean, can you imagine doing ALL your shopping at Tesco? Complete nightmare. I can give you an example from my own life only today: shopping around for some patisseries, I discovered that Tesco Express do Pain au Raisin for 84p whereas Sainsbury’s do 2 for £1! That’s the sort of value you need when you’re on £35 a week, trust me.

I should also mention that these vulnerable men, women and kids (remember, they left their countries because they were going to be killed, dude) are not allowed to work by the government here. What? And we call them scroungers? Why not let them do something useful and earn a bit of money then? Because doing something useful is a primary human need; without feeling useful a little part of us dies and we do stupid stuff. So a lot of these asylum seekers get involved with voluntary groups, just to feel useful, you know? But there’s a problem, of course: Tesco don’t do buses (yet). How the fuck are these people supposed to get around? How the fuck are they supposed to get to English classes or to their asylum interviews or to their voluntary work – or just to fucking Tesco’s for that matter?

Answer: bikes.

More than the practicality of riding a bike, though, is the spiritual element of unshackling the feet from walking for the asylum seekers:

I feel free on my bike. Just me and the road and my bike.

I feel like an eagle, like a bird…I feel freedom and peace…and no problem for me like I had before.

So hats off to the Bristol Bike Project.

That was actually the last film of Program 4; don’t worry, I won’t go on like this for all of them. There was Ben Hurt, bike chariot combat in Portland, Oregon; there was a 25 metre chain reaction like those car adverts, but this time with bike parts in Japan; there was papergirl delivering art to unsuspecting strangers in Berlin; there was a day in the life of a paperboy in Italy; there was a bike kitchen doing repairs using the alternative economy in Vienna; there was some nutty German woman doing handstands on her bike in Beijing and there was a 62 year old biologist who recently started to commute to work in Budapest (he takes secateurs with him to tend the cycle paths – ahhh, what a nice old man).

So that was all pretty heart warming (apart from the bit about Abdul Aziz getting deported, Tuesday, 10.00am, but I won’t go on about it). Program 5, in contrast, was pretty vacuous. It was all either arty or enthusiasty. I overheard some friends leaving the show, one saying to another, ‘…and Katie forced us to watch some bike geek-fest…’ and Katie replied, hurt, ‘ – it wasn’t geeky!’ Oh yes it was, Katie, oh yes it was.

But we were back on form for the evening show, imaginatively titled Program 7. It was a sell-out for starters and we all got into the swing of things with a little call and response:

RIGHT SIDE OF THE ROOM: Bikes!
LEFT SIDE OF THE ROOM: Rock!
RIGHT: Bikes!
LEFT: Rock!
RIGHT: Bikes!
LEFT: Rock!
RIGHT: Bikes!
LEFT: Rock!
ALL TOGETHER: Biriokekess…

Unfortunately, the ‘show-piece’ of the evening was a film about the wankers I mentioned yesterday – you remember the guys who cycle like idiots around New York? Well, it turns out they’re assholes as well as wankers. I don’t understand, I really don’t. They race around cities: fine. They don’t care if they kill themselves: fine. The problem I have is that if / when they kill themselves, they’ll almost certainly be using someone else to do it. Just smacking the road isn’t likely to be their demise, no. It’ll be some poor sod they’ve dashed in front of and he’ll have their blood all over his windscreen. Nothing he could have done about it, but there it is.

It seems particularly perverse to have this film showing at the BFF considering that it was started after the founder got hit by a bus! If that seems perverse, then my mind does half-pipes when I see that this film was sponsored by the BFF itself. I don’t get it. Perhaps, if the BFF is all about publicising cycling and raising awareness of cycling to motorists, then getting smashed up is about the best form of deterrent there is. For sure it gets headlines, for sure it scares the crap out of motorists and for sure they’ll look twice next time (if they’re not in therapy, that is). That’s the only logic I can see. If that isn’t the logic, then it really is just self-indulgent bullshit, suicidal wankdom. A quote from the guy who films these ‘Alleycats’:

People think we’re crazy or reckless or lucky – 

No, mate, we think you’re wankers. Arrogant wankers. I sort of feel like I should be checking this guy’s Wikipedia page on a regular basis, just so that when he dies I can write on the bottom: ‘Dude had it coming.’

But I’m not going to finish on that sour note of hostile bitterness, no. That would be unfair to the great films that preceded the self-indulgent crap. The most important moment of the evening came fairly early on, during a film of some American dudes cycling from Tokyo to Osaka. They were helped along the way by a Japanese cyclist, who was mad on bikes. They asked him why and he told them this (I paraphrase):

This bike was my father’s. He raced on it in a qualifier for the Tokyo Olympics. He passed away three years ago, but before he died we raced together, him and I. He was old but still he beat me! So now every time I ride my bike I feel like I am chasing him. I am still chasing my father.

Maybe we should all jump on our bikes and chase after that plane that’s taking Abdul Aziz away, Tuesday at 10.00am.

Bicycle Film Festival: Program 1 & 2

I have the pleasure of covering the Bicycle Film Festival at The Barbican for the London Student. Yes, I am still a student (technically). This means I get to watch films I would never have even considered paying money for. In fact, I thought I’d spend most of the evening looking around at a half-empty auditorium wondering what kind of person paid to watch pedals turning on a big screen. I suspected that I would be sitting with various members of the lower strata of the London press and that the sounds of our biros clicking in and out would be the most interesting thing happening in the room.

How I was wrong. 
Not only were the two showings pretty full, but the crowds were positively raucous and the films were – good! I wasn’t expecting that, I have to say. Now, this isn’t the place for a film review because, frankly, you’ve missed it, it just happened, but I will give a quick run-through to encourage you to go tomorrow or Sunday – or next year, maybe. (Yeah, ok, I know you won’t, but dammit, play along with the conceit will you?)
So first of all there were a series of three shorts. The first was a bunch of idiots cycling like suicidal idiots around New York City. They even boasted about how safe they felt while ‘riding the wave’, i.e. jumping red lights. Wankers. Can’t wait for one of them to get strawberried – actually I can because that would mean some poor sod is responsible for scraping them up off the road (and, being a city-cyclist myself, I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, but still – wankers). The second one was a fascinating story about ‘the world’s most prolific bicycle thief’, a Slovenian immigrant to the States called Kenk. Three thousand bikes he had when the police busted him. He said he stole them to demonstrate the wastage of the consumer society. Fair enough. The third one was about Rollapaluza in London, where people get up on stage and Fight Club-style bike it out against each other in 500m sprints. 
Then the main event had the crowd hooting and cheering even before it began. It was the story of Mat Hoffman, who is, apparently, a bit of a legend in the world of Big Air. Yeah – no idea either. But it was a great story and boy did that guy get hurt for something he believed in (doing big stunts on a BMX for those of you wondering). Couple of inspirational quotes though: 

Nothing is impossible; you’ve just got to keep coming back to it.

And: 

If I die with a body that isn’t completely wrecked I’ll feel like I’ve wasted it.

No danger of that, mate.
The second programme started in rollicking fashion with The Tweed Run, which takes place in London every year. A few hundred people cycle around Buckingham Palace and Saville Row in their finest tweed (and other gentlemanly attire). They stop off for tea and sandwiches in Hyde Park and finish off with a stiff gin and tonic. Spiffing. Then there was some boring Los Angeles short which was a bit pointless, but very artistic I’m sure. That’s ten minutes I could have spent getting a sandwich myself. Then there was a short about taxi-bikes in Cuba (the serious documentary of the day – there’s always one). It was genuinely interesting, though, and beautifully done too. It peered into the bicycle-heart of the social, economic and political life of Cuba. It’s major cinematographic contribution was a shot of these taxi-bikes going around and around in circles. I couldn’t spot the metaphor. It couldn’t have contrasted more with the bombastic piece of pointless fun that followed: a bunch of boys arsing about around Sacramento.
The main feature of the second program was about a bunch of pro skaters (as in skate-boarding – yeah, they do exist) who decided to cycle the length of New Zealand’s North Island to find some good skating along the way. They soon realise it’s not that easy. I felt for them, I really did, as they discovered the same things all first-time bike tourers do (including me – especially me): 
  1. Most of your time will be spent going uphill (without bending the laws of physics – work it out.)
  2. There’s a limit to how wet you can get.
  3. If you just keep going, wheel by wheel, you’ll get there in the end.
All in all, a great night’s entertainment. Just a shame you weren’t there and I was. Never mind. Oh, and I had one of the Barbican’s huge chocolate brownies as well – but I had to pay for that.

A Meeting of Activists for Palestine

Not long ago I went to a meeting of Palestine activists, held in a community hall in West London.

A young man reads out a statement from Leila Khaled, who could not be with us today because the Israeli government wouldn’t let her travel. I’ve been to a few of these activist meetings and she can never make it. She’s a member of the Palestinian National Council, but Israel know her power as a hero of the Palestinian resistance movement after her involvement in the 1969 hijackings. What the Israeli government don’t realise is that her continued suppression only increases the fervour of our sense of injustice. The young man’s hands shake holding the paper, his voice shakes with her words also.

Then we settle down and watch a film documentary about the Raytheon 9, anti-war activists from Derry who occupied and wrecked the Raytheon arms factory in Derry. Raytheon supplied missiles to the Israeli army during their invasion of Lebanon in 2006. The film had pub-interviews with the activists in jocular reminiscence of their hour of heroism, pints of stout in hand. I don’t know if they’re idiots or heroes. They fought against the injustice, but what good did they do? The documentary mentioned the difficulty of attracting business investment in the Derry area after the end of the troubles in Northern Ireland. There was a concern that Raytheon would leave, damaging the economy of Northern Ireland and risking future investment. However, Raytheon are still there and Israel still get their missiles.

The Raytheon 9 were expecting to get thrown out of the building by the police, but they weren’t. The police thought they were armed and so called in a specialist unit. When this police squad – with guns and gas masks – burst in to where the activists had blockaded themselves, the Raytheon 9 were sitting around playing cards. They were arrested and taking to court, of course, but the judge ruled in the activists favour. It is not a crime to use illegal means to attempt to prevent a greater crime. Tony Benn came on, saying that this ruling shows that there is no moral obligation to obey a law contrary to your conscience. Mark Steele came on, saying that this was a glorious victory and that the worst thing for an activist is to feel alone, to feel that you are banging your head against a wall and not getting through to anyone.

There is raucous laughter and cheers and applause at the film’s end. It’s like watching a bloodsport; we’re tourists at a bullfight, with front row seats.

Next, there’s a panel of activists and they all have their speeches to make. But I’m losing interest with their fine words and raised voices. One of the activists is a captivating young woman. I stare despite myself: spectacular hair, rings of blonde, somehow brown, syrup, honey, gold, framing a white blushed face, perched on a chair, chin lifted, showing the delicate sinews of her neck. If she catches me staring I would have violated her image. My stares are not lascivious, but aesthetic; she is Rembrandtian. Fine arched eyebrows, a curl of gold from her ear, lashes in synchronisation. What makes a person like that join a movement like this? So young, so beautiful? What makes anyone stand up and fight?

I am not convinced by these speakers. Why? They talk of injustice, I do not doubt that there is injustice, but I struggle to whip up any enthusiasm. Is it simply my growing boredom as the evening wears on? Is it because I am unconvinced by the efficacy of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement? Is it because I still see things from the point of view of the government, am I too conservative? Should I have more courage to stand up and fight the wrongs of others? Or am I reticent because I don’t trust these speakers?

I suspect some of the panellists to be fantasists. One of them tells a story about being asked questions in English by Israeli guards and answering in Arabic. The Israeli guards then spoke to each other in English, saying, ‘Don’t worry about him, he’s just an Arab.’ Why would they speak together in English? I know the power of activism. I’ve seen people charged with their own sudden self-importance, overwhelmed by the feeling of power, of rebellion. I’ve felt it, I was an important person, I was a hero. But what do our actions mean, actually? Nothing at all. The feeling of power is a delusion, a luxury we feel as privileged British passport holders. Another panellist refers to the ‘millions’ of people killed by Zionism. This is a heinous falsehood. A high estimate would have 80,000 casualties in war since 1948 and perhaps another 15,000 during al-Nakba. That is a long way less than millions, even if you were to add on the number of people killed in custody by the Israeli police force. I’m sorry, but fantasy makes your argument significantly less convincing.

There is time at the end of the panel for questions. It degenerates into squabbles between the organisers of the event and the Stop the War campaign, who resent the chair’s anecdotal story that he had to wait forty-five minutes on a march to get help after he was detained by the police force. This forty-five minute claim dominates the questions and the discussions for the rest of the evening, despite some people desperately calling for unity and to focus on the injustice of the Israelis and the sufferings of the Palestinians. It reminds me of another forty-five minute claim that twisted headlines.

At the end of the meeting, a young woman stands up and declares that she is from Gaza herself. Suddenly the hall erupts into cheers and applause, people lean over to hug her and to shake her hand, to pat her on the back. The air is of that surrounding a celebrity: at last, a real victim!

Ezekiel is not an Idiot

Ezekiel is not an idiot. He is very well qualified and holds a position of responsibility at one of the more respectable IT services corporations. He has a company car. Ezekiel is not an idiot.

But he’s troubled. It should just be lunch, but something has disrupted his meal. Ezekiel is eating a bag of mixed nuts – or rather – he was eating a bag of mixed nuts. Instead, he is looking down at his palm, trying to identify his food. He knows from the list of ingredients that this bag of mixed nuts includes peanuts, Brazil nuts, hazelnuts, pecan nuts and almonds. Using a process of elimination he thought he had identified them successfully, that’s a peanut, that’s a pecan, that’s a hazelnut and that’s surely an almond.

But what’s this? Ezekiel isn’t sure what this nut is. It’s a lot smaller than his almond, but there’s something very almondy about it. Perhaps this one is the almond, not that other one. But then which ones are the Brazils? And are these really hazelnuts? Ezekiel is troubled. If he can’t identify his own food, what else is he missing?

Ezekiel is not an idiot; he’s got a company car.