The Bicycle Film Festival has been celebrating the cycling lifestyle for 20 years. Each year the organizers collect short films with a cycling theme from local and international film makers, artists, and advocates. In the past, these were viewed at movie theaters in over 90 cities around the world. Over one million people have enjoyed the visual feast and shared their thoughts at watch parties and with groups of friends. Not to be deterred by the pandemic, the festival is being celebrated this year virtually by streaming on a phone, tablet, or computer. The Festival partnered with the local advocacy organization, Active Transportation Alliance and two community groups to add a local connection. The Chicago edition runs from Feb. 24 to Mar. 7 and an online ticket is available for purchase on the Bicycle Film Festival website.
The founder of the Bicycle Film Festival is Brendt Barbur and he has a story involving bikes himself. Barbur was hit by a bus in 2001 in New York City and was inspired to start the festival to turned this negative experience into a positive one. Using his point of view of community, the arts, and sustainability he has curated art exhibitions internationally and produced films and produced content for major brands. He has been profiled by the BBC, The Wall Street Journal, GQ, New York Times, The Guardian and many others. He has created a social phenomenon that has influenced the transformation of cities worldwide and encouraged environmentalism.
The 2021 Chicago version started out with the local focus first. We heard from Amy Rynell, Executive Director of Active Trans about the mission of the organization and some of the successes they have had and included a pitch to become a member. Then we viewed a collection of cell phone videos of group bike rides from the Streets Calling Bike Club, a new group for Black Chicagoans. The third short film was a representative of the Northwest Side Housing Center talking about its work to obtain transit equity such as Divvy stations in the Belmont Cragin neighborhood of Chicago.
Next up was the curated film section, and I counted eleven films taking place in a variety of places from New York and Colorado to international locations including Nigeria, Rwanda, Amsterdam, and Iran. The variety of locals makes the point that the bicycle is truly common ground all around the world!
My favorite film was that of the first BMX crew in Nigeria. The narrator calls himself Starboy. He saw videos of the tricks you could do on a BMX bikes on his cell phone and he was sold—he had to get himself a used BMX bike and learn the tricks. The film is chock full of young men doing amazing jumps and turns on city streets. They ride on sidewalks, alleys, berms, and courtyards all over the city because there is no BMX park in Nigeria. Starboy says he spends his free time developing his bike handling skills instead of getting into trouble and has collected a lot of friends in the process. He makes a little money doing BMX demonstrations and shows. We see a vibrant community that has sprung up knitted together around the love of cycling. This was a good feel good story about the bike.
The other film I found memorable takes place in Rwanda and is called “King of the Mountain.” The narrator references the political climate and genocide that is part of Rwanda’s history, and his desire to improve life for himself and his family. As a boy he saw the national Team Rwanda bike team ride by on a training ride and saw how people on the streets cheered and respected the riders, so he was inspired to become a member of that bike team one day. With the support of his mother, he trained every day on his bike, rain or shine. The film did not show much detail about the journey, the obstacles he had to overcome, nor whether his confidence ever waned, but it made clear his motivation for setting the goal. We learned that he was successful in achieving his goal and is a now member of Team Rwanda. This was another feel good story about hard work and reward that just happened to involve the bike.
There were two mysterious films that started telling a story and led you along making you wonder where it was going. The first was called “Boy” and started out with a man cutting a large limb from a tree out in the country. The man was portrayed as sad as he fabricated an object out of the wood. There were flashbacks of a young man riding a bike and a velodrome was featured in the story. Eventually we figured out that his beloved son was killed outside riding his bike, but the son must have also been a track racer, because the object the father fashioned from the tree limb was a floor board for the velodrome in memory of him. The father also took a ride on the track on his son’s old track bike. It was a story about the life of a cyclist tragically cut short, but also about how cycling helped the father deal with the grief of losing his son.
The other mysterious film was based in Iran. A woman was alternatively walking and riding a bike in a park, but was anxious about something, leaving messages for someone on her cell phone saying she needed help and to call her back and asking strangers to help her get the bike across the street. We eventually learned that she just purchased the bike and wanted to take up cycling, but apparently women are not allowed to ride a bike in Iran. She was asking for help to get the bike home without being caught by the police. Once we finally figured out what was going on, it was a striking way to learn about the place of women in Iran—they can have a cell phone but not ride a bike. But as we saw, some women in Iran are not letting these restrictions dash their dreams.
There were other films featuring women--female bike messengers, women mountain biking, and a woman teaching refugee adult women to ride a bike for the first time plus other films. The Bicycle Film Festival was definitely worth spending 90 minutes being engrossed in the lives of people impacted by bikes and see from their point of view what freedom means to them on a bike.
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