Welcome to Motos on Film, a look at movies about motorcycles and motorcycle life. Got a movie you’d suggest? Send a note to firstname.lastname@example.org, and maybe we’ll watch it next month! Disagree with the assessment of a movie? Leave a note in the comments below.
I’ve started to view modern adventure motorcycling films with a jaded eye. Too many of them fall into one of two categories. First, there’s the Vanity Project, with a storyline something like this: Big-Walleted Executives Ride Through Developing Countries On Massive Motorcycles And Hire Someone To Make A Movie About It.
(I blame Charley and Ewan for these movies—they basically pioneered the format).
Then, there’s the Hipster Project, with a storyline something like this: Millennials Realize Playing Is More Fun Than Work, And Ride to New Orleans/Alaska/Las Vegas With Hipster Mustaches On Hipster Motorcycles, While Being Dirty For The Sake Of It.
Thankfully, 972 Breakdowns – On the Landway to New York manages to avoid both of these extremes.
It’s a close thing, because right from the start, the setup seems straight from an Instagram influencer’s fever dream. Friends Anne, Efy, Elisabeth, Johannes, and Kaupo decide to ride overland from Germany to New York City upon graduation, taking the long way through Russia. We aren’t told much about these characters’ backgrounds, but they all seem to be artsy types, and they’re riding Ural sidecar rigs. Oh, gag … is this gonna be another hipster drama?
Not at all. Instead of angst, navel-gazing, fake hedonism and strained irony, you get the real nuts and bolts of adventure riding: River crossings. Bugs. Low budgets. Wilderness vistas. Breakdowns. Lots and lots of breakdowns.
While the trip covered all of 25,000 miles/40,000 kilometres across three continents over two years, most of the film covers the journey through Russia and Mongolia. We don’t see any footage from Europe, and none from the lower 48 states.
In many ways, the film feels like an update of 1995’s Mondo Enduro expedition, or 2001’s Terra Circa expedition. In those films, Gerald and Austin Vince and their teams battled the Russian wilderness, and in 972 Breakdowns, you see the exact same struggles against waterways, broken bridges, and general post-Soviet collapse in the Russian north. Twenty-five years after the Mondo trip, the infrastructure is still run-down, and buildings are abandoned. Russia’s natural hazards are still waiting to slow down, or even kill these five riders.
However, the Russian people are happy to help them out, just as they’ve helped many other moto travelers on the Road of Bones and other northern tracks ever since Communism fell and curious travelers started to venture north. Here, the riders’ choice of a crappy motorcycle makes sense in two ways. First, parts for the oft-failing Urals are always near-at-hand, since it’s a vehicle locals use as well. Second, when their bikes break down, the locals are always able and willing to help them get back on the road.
“The Ural became the stage of this undertaking,” the movie tells us at the end. “It took us behind the scenes, to all the workshops, kitchens and back yards of these people who time and again picked us up from the side of the road.”
Indeed, the interactions with locals are at least as much of a highlight as the film’s gorgeous scenery. It’s hard to convey the grandness of the Russian steppe on a small screen, but the beauty of people sharing what little they have shines through. It’s also a reminder of how much we’ve lost in our current closed-down world of social distancing. These opportunities, to meet real people along the way, have vanished.
We know little about the five adventurers when they start the trip, and we don’t learn much as the trip goes on—I would have liked to see more personal development. However, with their multi-cultural background (hailing from Germany, Estonia and Cyprus), perhaps that would have been difficult to convey in a timely fashion. But, that might have veered the film off into navel-gazing territory, and the adventure always comes first. Besides, after you watch some DIY dentistry towards the end of the trip, you get the idea: Life on the road has truly hardened these people.
If the film dragged anywhere, it was their river journey through Russia. While their idea of turning their Urals into a pontoon boat was very clever, I would have preferred to see less of this, and more of their time in the US. The contrast between soggy Russia and mega-cities like Los Angeles or New York, or the dry deserts of the southwest, would have been most interesting.
However, I think director Daniel von Rüdiger put together a fine film here, with plenty of clever touches. In particular, the animated parts diagrams devolving into breakdowns was a great recurring theme. At one point, the team is involved in a traffic accident in front of a gas station, and in the aftermath, a team member had the presence of mind to get their hands on the gas station’s security camera footage. That alone makes for an interesting perspective on the episode, but overlaying it with a weird mixture of spaghetti western violins and jangly guitars, with a second ominous Lynchian instrumental underneath? Far out, man. Artsy touches like this are everywhere in the film.
Really, I liked the movie. At 110 minutes, it’s just about perfect for an evening’s watch at home—which you can easily do from September 17 to 25, thanks to the Toronto Motorcycle Film Festival. Alas, it is one of only three films that are geo-restricted at the festival, to Canada-only.
For the next few days, you can either purchase a whole-festival pass to watch all the Festival’s offerings, or you can just purchase an individual ticket to watch this film alone. Or, you can buy the film on DVD here, through the movie’s website, if you’re coming in as a non-Canuck. Either way, you’ll enjoy it.
If you want more details on this adventure, the best place is the leavinghomefunktion website.