Festival organizers seek social reform through cycling.

Picture, if you will, a group of full-grown adults in pirate regalia, riding bicycles. Now, cover the bicycles in cardboard mockups of pirate ships. Finally, envision them riding alongside traffic in New York City, brandishing rubber swords and firing confetti cannons at other riders. Surely, you think, you must be dreaming this ludicrous vision.

Not so. This is but a single scene from the wealth of quirky bicycle-related films that aired at this year’s Bike Shorts Film Festival. The single screening featured over 40 different short films, each of which, in some way, featured cycling culture.

This year’s incarnation of Bike Shorts, which screened on September 15 at the Vancity Theatre, was the 10th such festival, and featured films from nearly all the continents of the world. Dustin Anderson, the current acting director of the festival, has been working as a children’s entertainer since the late 1990s, promoting health and bike safety through a persona he has dubbed, “the purple pirate.”

Dustin has brought his own vision of what the festival should be to the table, providing his services as director on a volunteer basis, and shaping the festival’s message in the process. As he says, “before [he] came on it was a lot more about critical mass ... but now it’s time for people to take that energy and put it towards something that will move us forward.”
Critical Mass is a notorious monthly event in Vancouver in which thousands of cyclists amass and ride through the city, blocking traffic and taking over entire streets with the sheer force of their numbers. Although the purpose is to draw awareness to the positive aspects of bicycle commuting, Critical Mass has drawn volumes of negative press in the past.

“When people ... going home from work are held up, and they don’t fully understand [the event], then all they’re thinking is that there’s a bunch of hippie dirtbags who have nothing else to do,” Anderson says. Clearly, this perception is the furthest thing from the truth, but he sees it as a consequential byproduct of the methodology of Critical Mass.

Prior to Anderson’s takeover of the management of Bike Shorts from previous director Tannis Braithwaite, the festival was focused on the promotion of cycling culture as an antiestablishment lifestyle. This is exactly the type of thinking that Anderson hopes to make a thing of the past.
In 2007, the last year of the festival under the old management, Anderson and his wife attended and were horrified to view, “a film about post-apocalyptic [society] where a cyclist gets hunted down by an SUV and shot with an automatic weapon.” This message of societal dissonance sits in stark contrast with the benign content of the shorts of today.

Anderson envisions a greener future wherein the majority of commuters will be cyclists. Even today, he explains that he thinks of people in automobiles as future cyclists.  

As such, he has crafted a festival which showcases everything, from eccentric artists who solely ride their bicycles while sitting on the handlebars facing backwards, to a simple time lapse view of an intersection in Amsterdam, where 50 riders pass by every minute during rush hour. Bike Shorts is divided into two showings, one of which occurs earlier and is geared towards families, and a later show, which features the films with more ribald content.

Even taking into account the presence of coarse language, the unifying theme of all the shorts is quite evident. They seek to express, in one manner or another, the simple, childish glee that one experiences when rolling around on a two-wheeled machine under their own power.

Even so, the overall toothless nature of the body of the films failed to grip the audience throughout, some of who could be seen fidgeting and checking their watches long before the end of the show. In seeking to eliminate the divisive politics of the previous festivals, Anderson has succeeded in making even the late show feel as though it’s meant for an elementary minded audience.

Unfortunately, with the festival censored in such a manner, one of the major outlets for politically charged media relating to cycle culture has been lost. With the heavy-handed agitprop pieces go the legitimate social commentaries, in favour of two-minute home movies that constitute nothing other than intellectual Pablum.

In the future, Anderson expects to grow the festival, which already has subsidiary iterations in Winnipeg and Calgary, into an international event. He noted that, “For our entire lives we’ve been programmed to believe that an automobile completes us and adds virility,” so it will take time and persistence to use the festival to persuade the public that they don’t require cars to be successful.

Nonetheless, Anderson firmly believes that, through Bike Shorts and like-minded events, his perspective will eventually triumph. In the meanwhile, he urges everyone on both sides of the issue to, “Be like Ghandi. Non-violent, non-confrontational…and be positive and compassionate towards people’s fears.”

//Max MacKay
Staff Writer

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