Editor’s Notes: Bikes vs Cars opens in Toronto on July 31st at The Bloor Hot Docs Cinema.
The final words (as uttered by Brazilian activist Aline Cavalcante) in Bikes vs Cars, Fredrik Gertten’s quietly powerful eco-documentary, serves as a perfect summation of its gentle, yet direct, tone: “You own a car, not the street. The street belongs to all of us. This is not a war. It’s a city”. This is a documentary told with a wit and creative verve which converts its seemingly mundane focal point (the battle between cyclists and cars in congested cities, such as Cavalcante’s own Sao Paulo) into a rallying cry comparable to the more evangelical ecological polemic An Inconvenient Truth…
This is a documentary told with a wit and creative verve which converts its seemingly mundane focal point into a rallying cry.
An anthology of campaigners, civil servants and artists dedicated to the preservation of the planet, along with those whose greatest concern is the safety of themselves and other bike riders, this is an astonishingly even-handed expostulation of an ignorant world in desperate need of a wake-up call. Whilst Gertten travails the globe for every possible perspective on an unceasingly controversial subject, his main protagonists are Cavalcante (introduced lobbying for bike lanes in her adopted city) and Dan Koeppel (seen exploring the history of LA’s transport network), the Los Angeles-based founder of The Big Parade, a two-day community walking event. These small-scale crusades may come across as banal subjects for such an important topic, yet Cavalcante and Koeppel’s natural charisma make their individual endeavours effortlessly engaging.
Gertten employs the expert opinions of urban planner Raquel Rolnik, city advisor Gil Peñalosa, German lobbyist Christina Deckwirth and Toronto former mayor, Rob Ford (no sniggering at the back!). This highly qualified role call provide a wealth of insight into the many obstacles faced by both ecological advocates and cyclists in their mission to improve the ever-deteriorating global situation. Although it’s abundantly clear on which side of the debate Gertten lies, his willingness to include Ford and other car-proponents suggest a maturity and confidence in his own case frequently lacking in his more experienced contemporaries.
The film is consistently well-shot, the scenes of bike-eye-views of inner-city commuting highlight the danger in which these conscientious community members are willing to put themselves.
The decision to apply animated presentations of key information make the complex statistics immediately accessible; democratising the subject and widening its message’s already considerable impact. The film is consistently well-shot, the scenes of bike-eye-views of inner-city commuting highlight the danger in which these conscientious community members are willing to put themselves. The excellent cinematography also serves to establish just how beautiful the world around us actually is, and thus how essential these efforts are in preserving that beauty.
Unfortunately, it’s unlikely there will be much new insight for enlightened audience members. If you knew for example, that bikes were a more eco-friendly alternatives to cars, there’s little for you to learn here. In addition, there is a lack of focus inherent in spanning the world for commentary which can, at times, dilute the pressing subject matter into an abstract concept rather than a contemporary worry.
The stylistic coups of Gertten’s direction and the offhand likability of his contributers make this well-informed documentary an interesting watch, but the overall lack of further penetration of an oft-studied topic render it an engaging, witty disappointment.
This is an astonishingly even-handed expostulation of an ignorant world in desperate need of a wake-up call.