2006-05-11 Keeping It Wheel - Time Out NY

Keeping it wheel: In a politically charged climate, the Bicycle Film Festival rolls on.

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Time Out New York

May 11-17, 2006

By Alec Appelbaum

Ever since police arrested dozens of cyclists during the 2004 Republican National Convention-ostensibly because suicide bombers can sneak into crowds on bikes- bike-loving New Yorkers have felt little love from the city government. Understandably, then, the annual Bicycle Film Festival-which this year includes more than 50 short and feature-length films from 12 countries-seems like a referendum on cycling’s role in civic debate. However, fest founder Brendt Barbur, who is currently preparing a street party to highlight the sixth incarnation of the series, swears he just wants people to enjoy themselves-and their bikes.

A Bay Area transplant, Barbur was hit by a Manhattan bus while riding in autumn 2000, inspiring him to start the fest the following spring. Since then, he’s launched similar events in nine cities around the world, with the support of Jonas Mekas, founder of Anthology Film Archives, which hosts all of the BFF’s NYC screenings. This year, they expect 7,000 to 10,000 attendees during the local run.

The films in the series focus on all aspects of bike culture, from anarchists and daredevils to messengers and goofs. Barbur describes one entry, "M.A.S.H.," as 45 minutes of "total pornography" reveling in the fixed-gear tricks that cyclists show off out West. "That’s going to be a landmark," Barbur predicts. "It’s going to expose a lot of people to a style of riding they’ve never seen." Another film, B.I.K.E., chronicles a filmmaker’s attempt to record-and then join-the daily lives of Brooklyn’s Black Label Bike Club, whose members ride on the raised seats of "tall bikes" and live together on a commune.

A party on Saturday 13, held in front of Anthology,should bring out activists, art fans and casual cyclists alike. In addition to temporary ramps for bike-related games and stunt demonstrations, the bash will feature info booths set up by the likes of the Lower East Side Girls’ Club and Recycle-a-Bicycle. Most of these groups are the sort that engage in idealistic activities without getting into Johnny Law’s face. (Full disclosure: This writer will have a table at the fest to promote his website, New Yorker by Nature.) Even so, there should be a politically charged air to the proceedings.

Some members of the city’s alternative-biking community have taken unkindly to attempts to capitalize on the scene. Recently, when Brooklyn Industries left a souped-up tall bike in a store display on Bedford Avenue, the shop’s window was broken by vandals, who left a note declaring that bike culture is "not for sale." But Barbur has established his bona fides among cyclists; he produced a documentary sympathetic to Critical Mass and has promoted bike culture around the world. And members of the cycling community are clearly on board. "A messenger in San Francisco said to me that the Bicycle Film Festival is the new Critical Mass," he explains. And besides, he notes, "the Bicycle Film Festival’s role is to bring groups together, including people who may be just interested in the bike or in the art." Time’s Up director and Critical Mass ride coordinator William DiPaola praises the fest’s ability to show the many facets of bike culture. "The film festival gives deeper insight into why people ride bikes," he says. "And it shows that a bike isn’t just a toy."

Still, Barbur acknowledges that the two-wheeler has become a loaded prop in the street theater of Bloomberg-era Gotham. Monthly Critical Mass rides, meant to celebrate bikes’ power to weld community, have led to clashes with police and annoyed some pedestrians who see the demonstrations as little more than dilettante radicalism. And bike-advocacy group Transportation Alternatives has colaunched the New York City Streets Renaissance Project, an aggressive campaign against the Department of Transportation’s traffic rules. Barbur knows that some of the festival’s fans want it to serve as a political statement. But he insists he’s a curator, not an agitator: "When an agenda is imposed on people, something dies."

The Bicycle Film Festival runs through Sunday 14. The street festival is Saturday 13 from 1 to 7pm. For more information, go to bicyclefilmfestival.com.

Copyright 2006, Time Out New York