Last night saw the opening program from the Bicycle Film Festival at the Cochrane Theatre, a full crowd packed the cinema space and as you would guess a fair amount of bikes were locked outside and an equal amount of hollow cheeked faces could be seen settling down for the start of the collection of films for the evening.
Some great short films were aired including a heart stopping 7 minute spectacle, ‘Monster Track VI’, from Lucas Brunelle as he films a group of some of the craziest fixed wheel riders dice with death and taxis around New York, squeezing through gaps between moving lorries and buses, dodging pedestrians, speeding through red lights and negotiating obstacles both on road and pavement. Think of the vibe of an extreme ski or surf video with bikes on streets. This was followed by Brazilian film featuring some highly skillful BMX flatland riders and then a Niestat brothers film as they filmed themselves stealing their own bike from various parts of New York City. We laughed out loud at the singular disinterest from the public and police as one of the brothers appeared to steal the bike using a variety of tools including boltcutters, angle grinder and hacksaw, I know that London is no different so make sure you use some heavy duty security on your bike as no-one will intervene when someone attempts to shift your metallic two wheeled friend. In fact I have heard that the best advice from police is that if you go to Brick Lane at the weekend you will probably be able to buy your stolen bike back for £50 anyway.
Before the main feature was a documentary of a Bike Kill event by the Black Label Bicycle Club and a spoof comedy of American sitcom ‘Taxi’ with couriers/messengers. And then came the main feature we had been waiting for the 2001 doc ‘Pedal’.
Peter Sutherland filmed a variety of characters who earn their living as bike messengers in New York, he has previously worked as Director of Photography on the skateboarding film ‘Stoked:The Rise and Fall of Gator' and this skate aesthetic seeps into this film. The influence of subcultures in the States on filmmaking always gives any documentary in which such people participate an edge. This non mainstream vibe is carried by the messengers, they know they exist outside the norms of the city but still retain that NYC pride and edge, for a gentle Londoner this can grate, we are not prone to such outburts of patriotic hyperbole for our city. However, there is a charm about all the messengers that Sutherland follows and he literally does follow them. With camera in tow he cycles around, one of the messengers who calls himself Skeletor proudly announces his 15 year experience and warns that due to his speed around the city that the camera may not keep up. With a shout of warning to cars and pedestrians he flies round the streets jumping red lights and slaloming through people crossing the roads, his distinctive cries must be familiar to residents of the city and no doubt this vocal but strangely reassuring approach to safety has probably kept him unscathed for all these years. Some are not so fortunate, Dexter is originally from Trinidad and has been riding bikes for as long as he can remember, it is logical for him to earn his living as a messenger, but one day whilst saving someone from a collision with a car was hit himself, he subsequently lost his right leg but with his crutches strapped to his bike continues to ride and work as a messenger with his self adapted bike.
Many people are interviewed, from the taxi driver and police cycle team who obviously do not agree with the necessary breaking of the road laws required for the messengers to make enough deliveries to earn a decent wage to the messengers and their bosses. Good, fast messengers make a good living and many on the margins of society turn to this work, immigrants of varying backgrounds are attracted by the accessibility and relative freedom of the work. A young Eastern European girl only resident in New York a few years values the wages but questions the longevity of this career choice due to the death of some of her colleagues and friends on the road. The main character that Sutherland follows during the course of the film has recurrent bouts of drug abuse, homelessness and is now recovering from a foot injury incurred by overwork in the latest harsh winter, with children to support and with his age against him and no other skills to offer he recognises his future looks bleak.
Something holds messengers in this work and it is the obvious love of cycling, the community spirit amongst messengers and the pride in being fast and smart. One messenger prides himself on his speed but knows others can ride harder, he explains in a toungue in cheek manner that if you can ride hard you could earn better money in the Tour De France but the thing that makes him better is his knowledge of the streets. He knows routes round the city better than most and that gives him the edge when racking up the number of deliveries necessary per day to build your wages.
It is an incredibly dangerous way to earn a living, it is guessed that a messenger can ride 80-100 miles a day in the course of their deliveries, that amount of time spent on roads built for motorised traffic with a minimum of safety equipment builds a confidence bordering on arrogance, an ability to conquer great fear, a pride in ones fitness and strength and a respect and love for fellow messengers.
It is such a strong subculture that many cant understand why or how the cyclists do what they do on the road. But it is such a unique culture that you can’t help but admire the hard work and risks needed to continue working as a messenger.