Docu-Mama

Rising documentary filmmaker Barbara Bustillo-Cogswell rides high on the hog

There is the sound of packs of hogs. An audible rotary force that grasps the chest and rearranges heartbeats. A thousand speed-addled Keith Moons banging contrarily away on tom-toms, kicks and snares couldn't top its fanfare.

The crooning grumble of pampered hog motors concedes to snappy spitters and spats, and the racket ends. The ears rest with a roaring stillness, the wake of a discord that inspires noise ordinances in the most broad-minded communities.

It's a sound attached with an image that has stirred myth and legend in word and film. Capturing it all on tape is filmmaker Barbara Bustillo-Cogswell.

The mild one: Biker documentarian Barbara Bustillo-Cogswell.
Paolo Vescia
The mild one: Biker documentarian Barbara Bustillo-Cogswell.
Cruising Central: Ready to mount, state Capitol bound.
Paolo Vescia
Cruising Central: Ready to mount, state Capitol bound.
Helmets are a drag: A biker demonstrates his disdain of helmet laws.
Paolo Vescia
Helmets are a drag: A biker demonstrates his disdain of helmet laws.
Rear view: Independent biker Chester in downtown Phoenix.
Paolo Vescia
Rear view: Independent biker Chester in downtown Phoenix.
Shooting the shooter: Split Screen's Amy Elliot, left, and Bustillo-Cogswell eye each other.
Paolo Vescia
Shooting the shooter: Split Screen's Amy Elliot, left, and Bustillo-Cogswell eye each other.
A sampling of patches and colors.
Paolo Vescia
A sampling of patches and colors.
Peaceful biking: Arizona Freedom Rally Y2K.
Paolo Vescia
Peaceful biking: Arizona Freedom Rally Y2K.
I love a parade: Bustillo-Cogswell at work.
Paolo Vescia
I love a parade: Bustillo-Cogswell at work.

Bikers are flocking into the parking lot at Park Central Mall. The surge of energy they bring passes through Starbucks, where comfy gentry in weekend leisure ensembles show concerned expressions.

A denim-and-leather-clad biker enters the sanitized coffee house, searing its atmosphere like a sour scent. He is flanked by a lanky peroxide blonde in paint-me-on stretch jeans and steep spike-heel leather knee-highs. The biker sports a grizzled chin and stringy, unwholesome hair. A sizable Lost Dutchman Motorcycle Club patch adorns the back of his road-tired jacket. The two order coffee and pay.

Seated nearby, a middle-aged woman steals a glance at the biker couple as they move past. She leans forward, pressing her face into serpentine steam rising out of her coffee. She whisper-hisses at her husband, "Something should be done about these people." The husband's shiny head remains immobile, askew; the Sunday paper in front of him holds its attention.

The bikers head out, each clutching a lidded cup of coffee. The woman seated at the table is still visibly angry and watches the couple move through the front glass doors.

The unlikely scent of jingoism mixed with patchouli oil lingers.

Outside, a crowd of nearly 2,000 bikers is gathered. They will soon rumble south on Central Avenue (escorted by motorcycle cops) to demonstrate individual and group adherence to patriotism and personal freedoms. The Wesley Bolin Plaza at the state Capitol is the group's destination.

The Arizona Freedom Rally Y2K, as it is called, is an annual biker fest for statewide motorcycle clubs, organizations, independents and enthusiasts.

The pretext of the rally is motorcycle rights awareness and the need to educate elected representatives, as well as bikers, in the interest of endorsed motorcycling. The obvious subtext to all of this is the need for the biker community to flex a bit of political muscle.

One could guess of many less interesting places to be than the parking lot of a faded shopping mall full of enthused bikers.

Polished and preserved machines shimmer in rows under a too-warm January sun. A fuchsia teardrop gas tank is as common as a stars-and-stripes sidecar; a relinquished 'Vette motor drives a three-wheeler that looks like a mechanical marriage of Steven Sprouse and Road Warrior; the Limey Riders motorcycle club is all about vintage Triumphs, and is the only local motorcycle club here that openly touts its anti-sexist stance and predilection for Brit bikes.

Choppers are over there, speedy trikes over here, and the occasional Asian anomalies such as Suzuki and Yamaha. Ape-hanger handlebars conjure longings for the open road, as defined in a moment of brilliance by Jack Nicholson and accordingly misinterpreted to horrifying results by scores of Hollywood filmmakers.

Harleys, of course, are everywhere, machines mercilessly ridden into old age. Embraced by classicists, this is exactly how they are intended to appear.

Many sun-drenched men with more than slight resemblances to Sam Elliott or Willie Nelson sport arrogant-looking leather that flaunts colors of many of Arizona's two dozen or so biker clubs: Lost Dutchman Motorcycle Club, Spartan Riders MC, Vietnam Vets MC, Bikers for Christ MC (speeding with God on their side and doling out business cards that quote John 14:6 -- ". . . Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me"), Devil's Disciples MC, Stoned Sober MC and so on.

The Hells Angels arrive stylishly late, in the true badassesness that makes them the state One Percenters (a name used for that club which sits atop the biker-club hierarchy).

A registration table offers up free bumper stickers displaying such forget-me-nots as "American by Birth/Biker by Choice," mini-wallet calendars touting attorneys specializing in aid to injured motorcyclists, and fliers with images of Kings and Jacks and hirsute-faced bikers advertising forthcoming biker affairs.

Women and girls, ranging in age from 3 to 78, blend in with four times as many men and boys. Dads, grandpas, mothers, aunts and children.

There are even a few privileged types, ungraceful in the residue of misdirected imaginations that embrace impulsive purchases of $30,000 Harleys and $25 Velcro headbands for a few weekends of posturing as bad boys.

Amid this collection of city workers, war vets and cable TV installers, lawyers, teens and children, and the long hair, tattoo sleeves and the occasional sidearm, two female documentarians wield broadcast-quality digital cameras. Bustillo-Cogswell is capturing more footage for her own film, while the second camera wielder works on a documentary about Bustillo-Cogswell herself.


"What are you rebelling against?" asks the small-town girl in the 1954 film The Wild One. "Anything you got," replies the assured biker gang leader played by Marlon Brando.

Forty-seven-year-old Phoenix resident Barbara Bustillo-Cogswell is well-aware of the myth that manfully dictates the codes and conventions of a biker -- a myth that says a biker is a tattooed, titty-bar-hopping rogue crisped on crank and braggadocio.

Bustillo-Cogswell is mindful of such biker clichés after spending the past four years traveling with motorcyclists, scrutinizing, investigating and interviewing them for an untitled documentary film that she hopes to have completed by May.

Two years ago, she married a biker, City of Tempe sanitation supervisor Dale Cogswell. The couple has used personal funds to document bikers throughout the Southwest. Until recently, Bustillo-Cogswell worked as a nanny for an IBM executive.

Bustillo-Cogswell's work-in-progress has created a mouthy buzz among biker communities, and her phone is starting to ring. One came from New York City.

Amy Elliot, a New York-based producer from Split Screen, a national weekly TV program airing on the Independent Film Channel, came to Phoenix during the Arizona Freedom Rally to shoot Bustillo-Cogswell in action for a segment. Hosted by indie-film maestro Jim Pierson, Split Screenprofiles indie filmmakers. The segment featuring Bustillo-Cogswell will air in April.

Sitting at the kitchen table in the modest bilevel home she shares with her husband, Bustillo-Cogswell comes off as calm and cool. She's showered and relaxed after having completed her regular workout at a nearby gym. Between often humorous biker road tales, the effusive Bustillo-Cogswell sips from a glass of white wine. Her liquid voice could lull a person to sleep. Her tinted crimson hair is pulled back from a face that is sharp, expressive and attractive.

Bustillo-Cogswell was born in northern Mexico, and her mother is an Arizona-raised Pima Indian. Her Mexican father, a steel worker, was part of the Bracero program in the 1930s and 1940s that saw the Mexican government make commitments to lend its citizens out for manual labor. In return, the laborers had the option of becoming American citizens. Bustillo-Cogswell grew up mainly in Pueblo, Colorado, with one other sister and four brothers.

She attended college in Boulder but quit just before earning a degree after two Chicano student friends died in Cesar Ch#aacute;vez-inspired civil unrest. They died in a mysterious explosion on campus.

"When that happened, I lost faith in the educational system," she says. "After that I just went to work. And those issues never left me."

She married, moved to Denver and raised two children, a son and a daughter, both of whom are now in their 20s and living in Colorado. She is also a grandmother; her daughter has two children of her own.

After splitting with her first husband, she pursued with conviction her interests in storytelling through film.

Spurred by the inspiration of Gabriel Figueroa, the brilliant Mexican cinematographer who refused to adopt Hollywood's vision of Latino heroes, Bustillo-Cogswell set about creating a cliché-quelling documentary on bikers and biker gangs.

"His [Gabriel Figueroa] films didn't feed me any stereotypes," Bustillo-Cogswell says of the films she adored while growing up. "They didn't make Mexicans look like idiots. They gave us pride. He wanted to also teach that Latinos should be very protective of their image. You know, like, 'You all don't have to play a gangbanger. You all don't have to play a prostitute. You do have an art form that comes from history.'"

Figueroa died in 1997. His was a career that stretched from the 1930s to the 1980s. Some of his best work can be seen in films such as Luis Buñuel's Los Olvidados, John Ford's The Fugitive, John Huston's Night of the Iguanaand Emilio Fernandez's La Perla. A Figueroa trademark was the use of momentary still shots as part of a film's visual arc. A Figueroa shot is easily identified as haunting and spare.

Figueroa is also noted for offering his home in Mexico as a sanctuary for various blacklisted members of the film community during the McCarthy era.

While working as an interpreter, Bustillo-Cogswell met Figueroa in 1985 at a film festival in Denver. They got along well and he took her on as a kind of apprentice. She would often travel on weekends from Denver to his home in Mexico City.

"This man was the most dynamic, incredible gentleman I had ever met," she says. "He was just the greatest storyteller I have ever met. He just took me in.

"He kind of felt sorry for me in a way because he said, 'Well, you have two strikes against you. First, you are a Latina and Hollywood is built on stereotypes. And second of all, being a female in the industry is not easy unless you are an actress or you are married to a famous man.'"

She eventually did a documentary on Figueroa's life; the piece screened at the second annual Edward James Olmos Latino Film Festival last year.

In her sharply crafted documentary shorts, Bustillo-Cogswell displays a flair for grasping the unusual story of the all-too-usual exploitation of the powerless. Some involve people overcoming odds, but never in cloying, sentimental ways.

Bustillo-Cogswell cut her teeth working as an independent producer and writer in Colorado at KCNC-TV for more than eight years. She produced more than 200 segments, and received a number of regional Emmy nominations. She produced and directed documentaries on Colorado ranchers, domestic violence and problems facing the local Latino community. Her intent was always to give voice to the voiceless.

She was also an on-camera hostess for a community affairs talk show and producer and writer for a KCNC show called Mosaic.

She completed a piece titled History of the Mariachiwhich screened at Hollywood's Greek Theater. She did a public service announcement on hate crimes for the City of Los Angeles' Commission on Human Rights that had a successful 10-month run, airing on all L.A. television networks and two Spanish-language stations.

Bustillo-Cogswell's initiation to the world of motorcycles came when she was 16, after her older brother built her a bike from scratch. She took to the road, and liked the air hitting her face and the sense of freedom.

An incident that occurred in Colorado sensitized her to society's view of bikers.

". . . I was riding with my brothers and some friends, and there was like 10 of us, but I was the only woman. We stopped somewhere and I went in to buy coffee and the woman working wouldn't wait on me. She says she doesn't wait on 'biker bitches.' And here I was, working at a community college. Most of the bikers were my brothers, my cousins and my nephews. And this is what got the documentary started about five years ago. Part of me wanted to deck her right there, but the other part was like, 'Wow, to be labeled so quickly just by the dress and the company I was with.' I had just been in there a few days earlier to buy coffee on my way to college and there was never a problem with this lady. And to me it was so odd not to be recognized. The idea that clothing could change someone's perception. I had been there in a suit I don't know how many times. But this time I was wearing leathers."

Her first real exposure to the biker gang culture came in 1996, when she was invited to Texas for the St. Valentine's Day Massacre run. The event gave Bustillo-Cogswell a quick primer on biker protocol and nomenclature.

"It was a big education for me -- the organization, people that were riding for motorcycle rights," she recalls. "The Banditos group here, the Survivors group there, the Gypsies, I mean, they all had their club organization and protocol and rules. I learned from that experience that there were all different types of bikers."

There are motorcycle clubs with their own safety and political coordinators, lobbyists to state governments and elected bodies. The faith in the political process and belief in the one-person, one-vote ideal is zealous. Many riders are patriotic war veterans.

Bobbi Hartmann is a state lobbyist for biker rights and spokeswoman for ABATE (American Brotherhood Aimed Toward Education), one of two nonprofit state motorcyclist-rights organizations. The group preaches political awareness and preservation of personal freedoms. It urges bikers to participate in the democratic process.

An anti-discrimination bill proposed by state Senator Keith Bee would make it illegal for any restaurant, tavern or "public accommodation" to deny access to motorcyclists. The bill applies to members of a motorcycle club or organization who wear colors, patches or any clothing that displays any name of any organization or association.

Hartmann has been riding hogs for eight years and is well-known in biker circles. In May, she retired from Motorola after 29 years of employment. Many biker organizations became aware of Bustillo-Cogswell and her project through Hartmann's introduction. The riders seem grateful.

"She's [Bustillo-Cogswell] been in a lot of our runs, like Mountain Madness last year," says Hartmann. "She is perceived well, she's taken well. Some were a bit worried about filming club colors and shit like that around the meetings. But that was not a problem. . . ."

Bikers see strict helmet laws as a big infringement on personal freedom. In Arizona, the helmet laws are lax. A person is only required to wear a helmet on a motorcycle if he is under the age of 18.

Health-care companies claim that motorcyclists not wearing helmets involved in accidents cost $375 million annually, and that 63 percent of that cost is paid by the public. They say that states without helmet laws have nearly double the death rates of those that require helmet use.

Nic Oliver, ABATE's Arizona safety coordinator, says that "driver's education is what saves lives. You can throw around all the numbers you want, but if people aren't learning to drive safely, then it doesn't matter."

Tom Bockstahler, a teacher at Dobson High and member of the Lost Dutchman Motorcycle Club who has been riding for 27 years, is also vice chairman of the Arizona Confederation of Motorcycle Clubs.

"I'm not against the use of helmets," he says. "I just want to have the choice."

Bikers appreciate Bustillo-Cogswell's work. They like the idea of a documentary, something to give them a voice, and hope the film is a step toward changing public perceptions of them.

Yet critics may hoot that she's churning out a romanticized view of bikers, a thinly veiled PR piece for motorcycle culture.

A Phoenix police investigator who's worked the motorcycle gang beat for 20 years says the outlaw biker still exists. That the good-guy image of the One Percenters is deceptively legitimized with membership in groups like AZCMC. But he is quick to point out that many lifelong bikers who embrace the lifestyle are law-abiding citizens.

"Yeah, it's true there a lot of legitimate people out there that like to ride that enjoy the Harley experience," says the cop, who requested anonymity. "You've got some great organizations out there that enjoy riding. But you've got gangs. And I don't care what ABATE says, I don't care what anybody else says."

ABATE members who talked to New Times didn't want to be quoted saying anything about the One Percenters.

"If you cross these gang members," he continues, "you are going to pay a price for it, it doesn't matter who you are. And crossing them is whatever they perceive as crossing them. You don't even know, it may be something you are totally blind to. They can only keep their image up for so long."

Mark McPhearson, a member of the Cave Creek chapter of the Hells Angels, says, "I know that if you push me, you better be prepared. We don't go out of our way to push anybody. But the one thing you can say about the Hells Angels is we'll stand up. And that is so important. . . .

". . . The cops can't come up with anything. We do know for a fact that they are frustrated. They can't find us doing anything so they know we are up to something. . . . We're not up to anything."

Bustillo-Cogswell is quick to point out, "I didn't set out to make bikers heroes. I just set out to say these are people I run across, these are the voices and the things that they are doing. I mean, I didn't set any of this up in that sense. This is what they are doing. I've seen them carry big teddy bears into a shelter home full of kids that have been abused sexually by their parents. But these are the guys bringing in the toys and the few extra bucks and the loaf of bread."

How does she answer to someone who may say her documentary may tacitly endorse the behavior of a select few who genuinely fit the cliché of the misogynistic, barbaric, drug-dealing biker?

"I've known some lawyers and judges and producers that are really, really awful people. I've never met a biker that I could say, you know, that guy is an abuser, that guy's a rapist, that guy's a drug addict. I can't say that about any biker I have met. I could say it about a few lawyers I know and so on. Again, it's that stereotype about what people assume through something someone else has told them what these people are like."

Bustillo-Cogswell says her film is "trying to point out that they are human beings, and that is what people forget. Because a guy is wearing something that says Hells Angels on the back is doing so as a personal decision. That is his business.

"No, what I am saying is if he walks into a restaurant, it's not right to say he can't walk in there because he has on those colors. And a person shouldn't have to cross to the other side of the road when they see a Hells Angel coming toward them. My point is about people being able to look at each other as human beings instead of what they wear and what they don't wear, whether they ride a Harley, take a bus or fly their own jet.

"And there's attitude, of course," she continues, explaining what happens to some when they hop on a hog. "When a woman slips on a pair of sexy pumps, I'll tell you there's an attitude that comes with it."

Bustillo-Cogswell's project is gaining steam despite the fact that her self-touting skills -- necessary tools for monetary success in the entertainment business -- are next to nil.

Split Screenproducer Amy Elliot took an interest in Bustillo-Cogswell after reading about her documentary work on a biker Web site. She pitched her story idea, then flew out from New York City and shot hours and hours of Bustillo-Cogswell in action. From the monthly AZCMC meeting to the Freedom Rally at the state Capitol, Elliot came away impressed, calling Bustillo-Cogswell "the perfect subject."

"I pitched this to the people at Split Screenby saying what it was that impressed me about her," Elliot says. "I didn't have to put a real spin on it. It just seemed perfect for Split Screen. I mean, Barbara is the epitome of an independent filmmaker. Just the idea that her commitment and her independent status made her a perfect subject. To have her doing this for four years and her passion for the project. That's really what we love on the show. . . .

"Then what I thought was interesting was the idea that she was giving a voice to these people that I never thought of as voiceless. I never realized the discrimination that bikers feel. And not just discrimination from the average Joe, but the way that they felt squeezed by legislation. By the anti-gang laws and the helmet laws and things like that. They really feel that their rights are being infringed upon. She's made an unbelievably good case for it. And it is true. And there are real stereotypes that the average American brings to these longhaired, scruffy guys who stand over six feet and wear leather and ride motorcycles and the tough-looking women that go with them."

Über-indie Robert M. Young is one of the more appreciated and decorated filmmakers around who has continually eschewed Hollywood tradition in favor of a more humanist approach and still managed to make a living. He has directed some of the foremost names in the game: Willem Dafoe and Edward James Olmos in Triumph of the Spirit, Ray Liotta in Dominick and Eugeneand John Lithgow in Rich Kids,among others.

Young has much to say about Bustillo-Cogswell during a phone interview. Young explained the relationship he and Edward James Olmos had established with Bustillo-Cogswell while she lived in Colorado, and how their belief in her went beyond the peripheral.

"When Eddy [James Olmos] and I met her when we were trying to distribute The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez," he says, "I saw that she was interested in doing things herself. The local programs she was doing in Colorado I thought were interesting.

"I think [with the biker documentary] she will do something really marvelous. Look, she's not a kid anymore, riding on the back of a bike. I know that from years back I saw things that she did where she wasn't shooting, where other people were shooting for her. Guys in prison who were trying to be artists, a boxer who was injured who was trying to make something of himself. So I thought she had very good and human instincts. Then the fact that she has picked up the camera. I gave her some tips and did a little shooting with her to try to help her. And I felt that she had a very empathetic, natural kind of way of doing it. So I encouraged her and I have been telling her some of my aesthetics, but she's on her own. I think it's impressive.

"Then much later I lent her my camera, not a movie camera but a Cannon LC-1 digital camera. And I saw some of the stuff that she did and saw that she had a natural ability. I encouraged her, talked to her. She did a lot of very nice things. So I was very impressed."

Soon Bustillo-Cogswell will start the editing process, and with more than 400 hours of footage, it will be no easy task. But cutting her a deal on time is Jim Schram at SEI Motion Pictures Productions. She will work out of his studio on the master tape. Prior to that she will be working in her home, putting together transcriptions.

"I will do the transcriptions so I can write a kind of script and do the final cut," she explains. "That way I will know what I am missing in the final story. And I am thinking of shooting more footage on the road and shooting it in film. Then doing the talking heads in digital. My idea is to shoot the road with the feel of the motorcycle and the look of the terrain from the bike on film. And the rest in video."


Dale Cogswell stands tall, well over six feet. Big cerulean eyes. A yellowy, overgrown Vandyke dominates his chin. His face is one part Greg Allman, one part Merlin Olsen. He is equal parts football player and southern biker rock. With dark shades, broad shoulders, thick hands, and on or off of a big hog, Cogswell seems like the sort who could dissuade you doing anything. He assumes easily our stereotype of the biker mold. To most, he's just a big biker dude.

We are at a Phoenix home of one of his biker friends. A guy is in the dining room etching colorful tattoos into various limbs. Today he may give as many as 15 tattoos to as many people. AC/DC and Danzig blare from giant speakers, and children chase each other around the front yard on trikes or small bicycles. A couple of towheaded kids sit in front of the television in the front room as people walk in and out between them and the television.

Harleys line the driveway. Lots of adults wearing Harley-Davidson tee shirts, belt buckles or bandannas. And through all of this the neighbors in this otherwise quiet suburban neighborhood don't seem to mind.

But Cogswell is literally the man behind the woman. He's a gentle sort that would just as soon rattle off a funny story about how his wife once got them out of a traffic ticket by accidentally puking on the state trooper's shoes ("He just walked back into his car and drove off without saying a word") as pull over to the side of the road and help a stranger fix a flat while hundreds of cars speed past.

Will he be getting a tattoo?

"A tattoo, me? Hell, I'm too chickenshit!"

Problematic to most documentarians, or any journalist, is the relationship between their subject and the responsibilities they face in creating their work despite sometimes close bonds.

Bustillo-Cogswell says her relationship with her husband has given her opportunities she wouldn't have otherwise had.

"I mean, I had been around bikers before Dale," she says. "But I don't think I would have embraced it as much, getting into the story as much if he wasn't also totally into the bike. He gets sensitivity as to what it takes to shoot something and get it funded. If anything, he understands the real pain that I have gone through with my history of film or video.

"Because now he actually sees it and feels it a little bit in the pocketbook," she continues with a laugh, "as well as just being totally tired of carrying the camera all day."

Cogswell is drinking a light beer from a can secured in a foam holder. He doesn't seem to mind that after four years into the project and hundreds of hours of footage shot, his wife still has no official financial backing and little means to offset production costs, other than what he earns as a Tempe city employee or what she can as a nanny. He just shrugs his shoulders and says, "I'm not worried. It'll all come together. I believe in my wife."

Here is a guy who defines biker by simply being free. He just doesn't get why some people don't want him to enjoy that. He genuinely doesn't understand the collision of cultures that being a biker oftentimes inspires.

But to some, the idea of a biker is about as counterculture as a Starbucks coffee house is now. In the '50s, coffee houses were a bastion of counterculture, too, in ways illustrated by the rejection of commercialism and materialism. It's kind of like Brando as the biker rebel in The Wild One. And that's what Barbara Bustillo-Cogswell is thinking.

"If I have learned anything from shooting this documentary," she says, "it is to not make judgments on first impressions in terms of my own stereotypes. And I think what I am learning is to be a little more open to people, by what they look like and who they walk with."

Contact Brian Smith at his online address: brian.smith@newtimes.com

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