Common Tread

Judging the Portland Motorcycle Film Festival

Feb 10, 2017

How Portland is this?

When the crowd poured into the lobby of the sold-out Hollywood Theater at intermission, I quickly found myself standing in a long bathroom line desperate to pee, but I was also hungry and thirsty, and the crowd at the concession was just as bad. So I walked to the nearest café, where I easily found an open john followed by a seat at the bar.

A hipster in a knit cap chatted with the bearded bartender, complimenting him on the bar’s special machine that freezes perfectly transparent ice cubes about two inches on a side, with no air bubbles or cracks, because that’s apparently important when chilling small-batch artisanal whisky.

As far as I’m concerned you can’t spell “artisanal” without a-n-a-l. But I sat down and ordered something I could get quick: a glass of the house red and a plate of pork gyoza.

And, I gotta admit, the local wine was delicious and the dumplings were the best I’ve ever had. Then, I walked back to an old-school movie palace, where they were showing nothing but motorcycle films.

“Why, oh why,” I thought, “can’t we all live in Portland?”

lobby at Portland Motorcycle Film Festival
There was literally a buzz in the air as the crowd entered. The festival’s a great opportunity for motorcyclists of all stripes to get together in the dead of winter. Photo by Mark Gardiner.

More and more of us do, of course. Every week, one or two of my Facebook motorcycle peeps announce they’re cashing out of SoCal and moving to “Stumptown.”

The local road racing club (the Oregon Motorcycle Road Racing Association, aka OMRRA) is the only club in the United States with a home track right in the middle of the city, Portland International Raceway. Dual-sport and trail riders have access to hundreds of miles of fire roads and trails that start almost at the city limits. Café racer types sip their café at the motorcycle-themed See See coffee shop; See See proprietor Thor Drake also promotes The One Moto Show. Arun Sharma runs America’s highest grossing Ducati dealership here.

And for the last four years, Portland’s been home to one of the first and biggest motorcycle film festivals — a mid-winter event that brings every type of rider to the historic Hollywood Theater for two nights of motorcycle shorts and features.

Portland Motorcycle Film Festival organizers
Chris Page, Tom Parker and Dave Friesen are all Nike employees. They have collaborated on every edition of the Portland Motorcycle Film Festival. Photo by Mark Gardiner.

Motorcycle movies for a cause

The festival’s the brainchild of Chris Page (a Nike exec who’s also the current president of OMRRA). Back in 2013, Chris saw a Facebook post about a road racing movie called “Road Warriors.” Two motorcycle friends, Dave Friesen and Tom Parker, bemoaned the fact that it would never be screened in Portland. At first, they considered trying to arrange a screening in the auditorium on the Nike campus, but as they talked about it, their idea morphed into a film festival and fundraiser. At that point, the renovated Hollywood Theater, which is operated as a non-profit, was the obvious choice as a venue.

“Road Warriors” director Matt Greenstone was more than happy to provide his film for a screening. Parker, who is a documentary film-maker himself, knew how festivals worked and coordinated the selection of a few more features and several short films.

In the middle of winter, the motorcycle community was quick to seize on a great excuse to gather, trade stories, and drink beer. The Portland Motorcycle Film Festival was sold out in short order, and it was away to the races. Over the first three years of the festival, it raised $50,000, all of which has been spent on Airfence and other safety gear for OMRRA.

“I’ve stood around on a Sunday afternoon at PIR, drinking a beer and laughing with racers who hit Airfence bales,” Chris told me. “Without the film festival, they would have hit unprotected walls or Armco barriers, and it would not have ended nearly so well.”

Airfence purchased with money raised by the film festival has saved many an amateur racer from injury. Photo by Bob Edwards.

OMMRA must’ve utterly exhausted the supply of local judges, because they invited me to serve on the panel that would select the winning short and feature-length entries (there’s also an Audience Choice award). Selections were culled from dozens of entries, and included films from Indonesia, France, Germany, Australia, and New Zealand (as well as the United States, of course). Topics ranged from road racing and the Pikes Peak International Hillclimb through dual-sport/adventure trips, to Oregon trail riding. Two films portrayed motorcycle gangs, one of which was a serious feature and the other was a short that had its tongue firmly in cheek.

Long before the theater doors opened, there was a line of motorcyclists down the block; guys and gals, young and old — though even in Portland, the crowd skewed 50-plus. Since it was a clement evening, many arrived on two wheels. The gathering had the character of a well-lubricated off-season club meeting, as knots of people collected in the lobby and moved into the 400-seat theater, catching up with old friends.

Friday program
Film Synopsis and comments Director
Himalayan Road Trip This documentary was the judges’ choice as Best Short. Carlos Costa (UK)
Trailmaster A short doc sponsored by GoPro. Matt Sanders (U.S.)
91 A short doc about endurance racing at the Bol d’Or. Oliver Wagner (France)
1000 Kilometer A feature documentary about the southeast Asia custom bike scene. Ilham Nuriadi (Indonesia)
Motorbike Jazz This short was the only scripted film in this year’s festival. As such, I wanted to like it, but I had to agree with one of my fellow judges who, succinctly, said only, “I wanted to punch that movie in the face.” Tim Scott (U.S.)
The Little Person Inside A moving short portrait of a road rider who was paralyzed in a traffic accident, and then became a road racer. This story highlights both the risks and satisfactions of our sport, and forces each of us to confront our own fears in a very compelling way. Tom Long (UK)
Beyond Siberia A feature-length doc, compiled from a two-part TV series with a cameo and narration by Charley Boorman. Robin Newell (Australia)

I’m not gonna’ sugar-coat this: By the end of the first night’s program, the overall impression I had as a judge was that it’s easier than ever to capture images. DSLR cameras have given modest productions the ability to present beautiful images in high resolution; affordable drones allow amateur filmmakers to capture shots that would have involved spending thousands on helicopters just a few years ago; and, the ubiquitous GoPro allows anyone to get great on-bike shots.

Autofocus, autoexposure, and built-in image stabilization are the cinematic equivalents of ABS and traction control. Unfortunately, there’ve been no comparable advances in storytelling, and there’s no program or app to make editing decisions. It’s way easier to make a film that looks pretty good than it is to make a pretty good film.

Lance Oliver and I traded emails as I compiled this story and he was dismayed by the lack of preparation by the two protagonists in “Himalayan Road Trip.” They arrive in India without even a valid driver’s license. Still, the two 20-something Brits manage to rent 350 cc Royal Enfield Bullets and ride over the world’s highest motorable pass, before even learning how to fix a flat. Since they were so honest about being in over their heads, I didn’t hold it against them. It got my vote as the best short.

“Beyond Siberia” presented a conceptually similar story, but I hated it. A larger group of older, richer people — most of whom displayed woefully inadequate off-road skills — rode from London to the Russian Far East, in what amounted to a feature length anti-advertisement for gigantic adventure bikes.

Unlike the Himalayan odyssey, the Siberian tale took itself way too seriously, right down to having Boorman appear on camera in the introduction, which struck me as pretty desperate. Like, “Our film stars Charley Boorman, even though he actually didn’t come on the ride.”

As a motorcyclist, “Siberia” made me want to scream, “For God’s sake, get a KLR250! You’ll be able to pick it up by yourself.” As a storyteller, I felt that if they were going to attempt a trip they were not skilled enough to handle (and which, frankly, they were too old for) they should really own those inadequacies and make that the story.

I spent Saturday afternoon interviewing two of the production teams. Matt Sanders and Sky Pinnick arrived in a mud-spattered truck with two well-exercised enduro bikes in the bed; they’d come straight from local trails to meet and chat at See See Coffee. Matt directed, and Sky shot, “Trailmaster”and “Gas vs. Electric.”

Makers of 'Take None' film
Gusmano Cesaretti (left) and Kurt Mangam have day jobs as location scouts and still photographers in the film business. They spent years befriending and documenting the Chosen Few motorcycle club in South L.A. to make their film. Photo by Mark Gardiner.

I also hung out with Bruno Sere, Gusmano Cesaretti, and Kurt Mangam, three L.A.-based filmmakers who have spent several years making “Take None, Give None,” a feature-length documentary about the Chosen Few, a one percenter club that got its start over 50 years ago in South Central L.A. I got a real sense of how much easier the path is for filmmakers like Sanders, making short branded-content pieces that can be planned over a few weeks and shot in a few days, compared to the “Take None” guys, who have spent years on their project — and, so far, have not made a cent from it.

Once I was thoroughly hyper-caffeinated, I changed venues a block or two, to the festival’s VIP pre-party at Thor’s shiny new KTM dealership. Meanwhile, a dozen or so members of the Chosen Few’s Seattle chapter were riding down to the festival.

Chosen Few MC
Festival director Chris Page didn’t expect to be charmed by the dozen or so members of the Chosen Few who rode down from Seattle to watch Saturday’s program. But, he was. Photo by Mark Gardiner.

When Bruno Sere, the executive producer of "Take None," sent a text message telling them to meet us at See See KTM instead of the movie house, the bikers texted back, “What’s KTM?” I never got around to asking any of the Chosen Few — who were pretty chill dudes, by the way — what they thought of those orange bikes.

Then, it was back to the Hollywood Theater for Saturday’s program.

Saturday program
Film Synopsis and comments Director
Quake City Rumblers A very short and funny portrait of a scooter “gang.” Chris Rausch (New Zealand)
Take None, Give None The judges’ choice for Best Feature.
Gas vs. Electric A branded-content documentary sponsored by Victory. Matt Sanders (U.S.)
Arrows of Fire A feature-length documentary about four guys who embark on a ride across Australia on Honda C110 “postie bikes.” The journey ends badly for one of them. Duncan Menge (Australia)
Macao Gladiators A feature documentary about the Macau GP. Andreas Knuffman (Germany)

Audience Choice
Official voting system. Photo by Mark Gardiner.
There was something for every motorcyclist over the two nights, and the proof is that the Audience Choice award ended up going to “Beyond Siberia.” My notes on that film included the question, “What’s going to take longer, the journey or the movie?”

After the lights came back up, the six judges walked a block to a nearby bar to begin serious deliberations under the chairmanship of Tom Parker. I was pleasantly surprised when we quickly reached the consensus that the best short was the infectiously good-natured “Himalayan Road Trip” and that the feature prize should go to “Take None, Give None,” which was by far the most ambitious film in this year’s festival.

judges' deliberations
Judges gathered in a nearby tavern to choose the best short and best feature. Isn't that how the Supreme Court does it? Photo by Mark Gardiner.
So, in the time it took to quaff a beer and eat a burger, the fourth annual Portland Motorcycle Film Festival wound down. It again raised another significant chunk of change — money the Oregon Motorcycle Road Racing Association will spend on even more safety equipment for their home track. A bunch of filmmakers got the satisfaction of knowing their films were (finally!) shown to a large crowd, in a classic venue with great projectors, a 50-foot screen, and full Dolby sound. Every single movie earned spontaneous and sincere applause, and I know that the filmmakers in attendance were really touched.

There are now at least four motorcycle-themed film festivals; there’s one in New York (Brooklyn), another in Madrid, and Toronto’s about to hold its first. Festivals like these will actually make motorcycle movies better, too. They give motorcyclists who make movies useful feedback, and encourage more established filmmakers to consider motorcycle stories, now that there are festivals that embrace such subject matter.

I’d love to see the Portland Motorcycle Film Festival take its show on the road. When I suggested touring the festival to Chris, Tom, and Dave, they gave me a look like, “Have you not seen how much work this is?!?” But they’ve considered the possibility of exporting the concept to Seattle, in support of their sister road racing club, the Washington Motorcycle Road Racing Association.

For now, though, it’s Portland only. If you already live there, you know all about it. If you’re considering moving to Portland (and who isn’t?) you can catch the fifth annual festival in January, 2018. Like all previous festivals, it’ll sell out fast, so keep an eye on the web site and the festival’s Facebook page.