by Jeremy Rogers
At times it seems that the world is more divided now than ever before. In the digital age, it has become increasingly easy for people to sequester themselves and stay wrapped in the comfort of that which is familiar and inoffensive. This makes people feel better equipped to deal with the challenges that life throws at them, but it often has the effect of creating brand new challenges.
From the Joads to hitting the road
The documentary follows a group of five Australians as they retrace the journey of the fictional Joad family as detailed in John Steinbeck’s classic novel The Grapes of Wrath. Though instead of piling into a rickety jalopy, the group decides to travel the more than 1,500 mile journey from Sallisaw, Oklahoma to Bakersfield, California all on bikes.
The group started with very little money, like the Joad family did, packed nothing but some instruments, some camping equipment and their cameras, forcing them to rely on the kindness of strangers to either give them lodging and food for free or to give them opportunities to work for their keep as they make their way. Giving themselves just 30 days to make the journey, the bikers were forced themselves to bike roughly 80 miles every day. Over the course of filming, the group ended up with over 160 hours of footage.
Like riding in a sidecar
Despite the quantity of material to work with, the crew of Bikes of Wrath cut their experience down to a digestible, entertaining film. By the nature of eschewing elaborate camera rigs in favor of portability, the camerawork of the film is extremely intimate. Since the camera operator was one of the riders, he was right in the thick of all the action. Similarly, since the film’s editor, Cameron Ford, was also on the ride, he was able to distill the footage into a final product that carries with it a sense of candor.
The final cut of the film is replete with moments of hope, despair, moments where the countryside is given time to shine, as well as segments that openly raise questions about the nature of humanity. And all of these moments are focused through the framework of Steinbeck’s classic novel as the crew retraced their steps after their journey and had people they had met along the way read thematically relevant passages from The Grapes of Wrath that were interlaced into the feature.
Small interactions, big impact
One of the key questions the crew set out to answer was to see how people would react to a group of people making a cross-country journey while down on their luck. The crew met a wide variety of people, from entrepreneurs to vacationers to sovereign citizens, and were almost universally received kindly wherever they went. Free meals, places to stay, and sometimes even donations were not uncommon along the way, especially once local news stations started spreading the word about the group of biking Aussies.
Despite all of the kindness shown to them, the crew still were able to see an unfortunate example of a much less openly visible aspect of human nature. One of the most touching moments of the film occurs when the crew happens upon a lone pedestrian ill equipped for walking along a desert highway. After sitting and talking to the man, sharing their food and water, the man volunteers that he is homeless and suffering from a mental illness. After relaying that he felt he belonged nowhere and that he had intended on dying in the desert, the crew ride back to a gas station to find help for the man.
The conduct of the team during crisis helped to bring out another dimension to the film. Their reading of The Grapes of Wrath told the crew that people should help each other. To them, that was one of the core tenants of the book: all it takes to make significant positive change is to stop, share what you have (even if all you have is water and half a sandwich), and listen. In their quest to explore the capacity of peoples’ generosity and openness, they were able to put their own values into action.
Bikes and beyond
The film is filled to the brim with interesting questions and unexpected answers. How should we treat those less fortunate than ourselves? What can we do to not repeat the mistakes of the past? How do our stereotypes match up with reality? It turns out that despite things that people see as major differences, people act compassionately. It just takes trying to be good people. If we can see that, then we can hopefully find a way to get along better.
The crew also just got done with the filming of their next documentary project, Floatin with Huck, where the Australian bibliophiles made their own raft and travelled on the Mississippi River for 90 days to explore race relations in the USA. This sequel documentary should be done next year.
Featured Image: Facebook
The Bikes of Wrath
With scenes of southern hospitality, excruciating physical pain, and moments of accomplishments, 'Bikes of Wrath' is largely successful in its mission show off small town America and the people who bring it alive. The camera work and the editing make every moment intimate, the triumphs and the setbacks.
Execution of Premise
Jeremy is a News Journalism and Telecommunications Major and aPolitical Science and American History Minor. Jeremy is serves as Byte’s News Editor (2017-2019). He also writes reviews, features, and guest stars on podcasts.