Interview with Bicycle Film Festival founder Brendt Barbur

By | March 9th, 2011 | No Comments

Produced by Johnny Knoxville and Spike Jonze, BFF opener The Birth of Big Air chronicles the career of legendary BMXer Mat Hoffman.

In its tenth year, the Bicycle Film Festival will be riding to Miami next week for the end of a 38-city, international tour that started back in May. Festival director Brendt Barbur founded BFF in 2001 after being hit by a bus in New York City, where he still lives. It wasn’t Barbur’s first traumatic experience on a bike: He had gone through someone’s windshield in San Francisco a few years before. Amazed at the reaction of the police, EMTs, and bystanders — “It was as if it was my fault, and I was so stupid for riding a bike” — Barbur decided to launch the BFF as “a platform to celebrate the bicycle” through music, art, and film. In the last ten years, he has organized 130 festivals around the world, including one in Miami in 2009.

This year’s fest kicks off next Thursday (March 17) with the unsanctioned La Noche Miami Criterium race in Wynwood. On Friday and Saturday, O, Cinema will screen bike films all evening, including The Birth of Big Air, Empire, and Riding The Long White Cloud, followed by after-parties in South Beach and downtown with Brooklyn Brewery specials (yum). Then Sunday at 2 p.m., there is a Bike To The Beach group ride taking off from Wynwood (2801 Biscayne Blvd), followed by “Chocolate Sundays” at Purdy Lounge Sunday night.

With BFF Miami set to roll into town, I spoke to Barbur by phone on Tuesday about how getting hit by a bus led him to start an international film festival, the state of Miami’s bike scene, and the cure to America’s car sickness. It was a late-afternoon, rambling interview, so I bucked the Q&A format for a series of Barbur’s thoughts on different topics.

On fashion and biking …

The BFF is a really grassroots thing. First off, the participants were artists mostly and filmmakers – that’s who made this thing run. But then fashion folks picked up on it. We’ve been in more fashion magazines than sports magazines. You know, they picked it up because fashion always wants to be ahead of the next big thing, so they understand this is the new fresh thing.

On Miami’s bike scene …

Miami’s a new and fresh place. If I was going to be lazy, I would say it’s a little bit behind places like New York and London and Tokyo. But you can look at it as, It’s just coming into its own. It actually has a large bike scene that is really unique to Miami, a very Latino culture within road cycling. This is my own impression. I’m not an expert on the Miami bike scene. But in my experience, the people who are actually out there riding their bikes on the weekends are Latino, family people, upper middle class, middle class, and professional. But [with] the young folks coming in … there’s this whole new street culture to Miami that’s been going on in New York since the 80s with the fixed-gear culture and BMX. People are taking pride in that.

Loose Cannons is something that’s a great, great thing that’s happening that’s unique to Miami. It’s drawing lots of different kinds of people together, which cycling does. You can do it once a month, and you’ll see people who you probably wouldn’t have come into your social scene otherwise. To me, that’s really beautiful. If I’m going to toot the horn of the Bicycle Film Festival, hopefully we can accomplish that on a bigger level.

On the meaning of the phrase ‘bike scene’ …

It’s funny because I talk to a lot of people and there’s push back: “O, I hate that word ‘scene’.” I think it’s a community. Riding a bike can be very solitary. You’re doing it by yourself most of the time. But then there’s group rides, and you have to communicate with folks to organize those rides, so all of a sudden there’s community. And those communications happen at certain cafes and certain bike shops or a place like the Bicycle Film Festival. That creates the community.

On misconceptions about cyclists …

There seems to be, in this country, disrespect for folks who decide to ride bikes. The thing is, there’s an assumption that people who ride bikes aren’t educated, are weird, don’t have money. But it’s actually the opposite of that. The demographics of people who ride bikes is really broad, but if you really do the research on it, it’s actually the people who are educated, who have a high income, who are contributing to their cities more often than not. They are the people who people in marketing would consider “taste makers”.

On America’s car-centric infrastructure …

I don’t really like to get into this, because I really am into being pro-bike. But if you’re going to ask me what we’re up against, we’re up against 50 years — 100 years really — of a major infrastructural push around the car in this country. It impacts the way we live on so many levels. The way we interact with our own homes, they way our homes are designed. You drive into the garage. You drive to the restaurant for dinner and drive through the drive-thru on the way home from the job, where you work in a 30-story building, and you drive into the parking lot there. And you drove there on a major, multilane freeway. That’s billions and billions of dollars [in infrastructure].

I think what’s happening now is that’s changing. People are moving to city centers, all over the world actually, and what’s the best way to get around a city center? It’s a bicycle. You know, I’m not anti-car. But I’m just recognizing that we’re kind of car sick in this world. If we’re talking about patriotism and all that, you know, the most patriotic thing we can do is serve our communities. Maybe riding our bikes once in a while can serve our communities, and in the bigger picture serve our country.

On the accident that inspired the BFF …

I had been in accident a couple of years before, in San Francisco, where I went through the windshield. And how the people treating me was amazing – how the police treated me, how the ambulance treated me, how the people around on the streets treated me. [It] was as if it was my fault, and I was so stupid for riding a bike. Actually, no, I’m not stupid for riding a bike. It’s the best way to get around, and I don’t ride because I’m an environmentalist.

So [how I was treated] made me kinda angry, and I was actually pretty hurt. But I didn’t want to sit around being a victim. I wanted to do something really positive for bikes. I didn’t have any agenda other than I was into movies, into art. That’s my community here in New York. I wanted to make a movie and show some movies, and people just started jumping on board. “Let’s do something really fun.” And that’s really what the festival is about. We put on some amazing parties. I know I went a little political there talking about the car thing. That’s really not what it’s about. I’d like to get some more folks on bikes. If that’s what we accomplish, let’s keep doing it.

On getting past the animosity between cyclists and motorists in Miami …

I think what you do is just promote biking in a positive way. The thing is that the inevitable tide of cycling is coming. It’s happening around the world. Gas prices are going up. The urban sprawl is not working. It’s fine if people want to live that way, if they want to commute an hour or two to get to work. I’m not saying they can’t live like that. I’m not trying to take away people’s lifestyle of being stuck in traffic. I ride my bike wherever I go because I enjoy it. Occasionally I take cabs or drive, but I live in a city where having a car is really inefficient. But you know the car is a great tool for many things. I think another thing to do is not villainize people who drive cars. Some people have to drive cars in this infrastructure that we have. So stay positive. It’s like anything else: If you start fighting with people, [it’s unconstructive]. Just let them say what they want to stay, and keep doing what you’re doing. Make sure the bike side, the positive side, is spoken.

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Make sure to check out our podcast tomorrow, which will include audio clips from my interview with Barbur. Here’s the trailer for the BFF’s opening film, The Birth of Big Air.



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