Over the past 18-plus years, Joe Biel has become a DIY archetype. Through hundreds of books and zines with his Microcosm Publishing house, dozens of self-made films, and international "Dinner and Bikes" tours, Biel has invested his entire life in the promotion of underground and alternative culture.
For his latest project, screening at FilmBar in downtown Phoenix on Tuesday, July 29, Biel has created Aftermass: Bicycling in a Post-Critical Mass Portland. The feature-length documentary aims to capture the cycling-activist zeitgeist by turning the lens onto the most bicycle-friendly city in the United States, showing how residents worked on the ground through events and actions such as the now-international monthly Critical Mass ride to produce the pedaling mecca Portland is known as today.
What began as a discussion with fellow Portland bike activist Reverend Phil Sano about cataloguing the true story of Portland and its Critical Mass rides quickly turned into a five-year filming project to produce the film.
"All of my previous feature films have been much more personal. They were more about my friends, my life, my environment, my scene, whereas this is more of a big-tent project," Biel says of the separation between this film and his previous work.
Biel sees the film as an almost instructional means of illustrating how change was made in Portland with regards to bicycling in the city. In creating the film, he was creating a case study to show how activists and policy makers can potentially work together in any town to produce the cycling culture and infrastructure for which Portland is so renowned.
But rather than simply focusing on a handful of public figures and elected officials, Biel chose to focus the film on those that didn't necessarily get the attention they deserved in the long struggle for bicycle inclusion.
"The film is really a celebration of the underdog... We're looking specifically at, like, who are the people that ended up getting a bunch of tickets or spending time in jail," Biel noted as an example of the kind of activists on which he and the producers focused their attention.
While doing this work, Biel was also dealing with a great deal of personal and business drama with his long-running underground publishing house, Microcosm. It takes only a brief Internet search to see the allegations of harassment, failed business deals, mediation attempts, and boycotts targeted at Biel himself, Microcosm, and his former business associates, who now run fellow alternative publishing company Pioneers Press.
When asked about the potential effects of this tension on the reception of his current film, Biel notes an interesting divide between his film work and the zine and book community in which he has built an empire.
"My film work and my work with Microcosm has always been really divided in the way that they're promoted. There has almost never been a crossover, to a degree that it's kind of weird," Biel explains.
To this end, the way the movie is promoted largely based on what local partnerships are forged in each city.
Building an international network for bicycle activism is foremost, as Biel stays, "In most of the cities we tour we partner with advocacy organizations that are working locally, for the purpose of connecting [people to their local resources]."
For the Phoenix screening, Biel was approached by local advocacy organization and Best of Phoenix winner Phoenix Spokes People.
Biel says of the Phoenix partnership, "It's those smart organizations that get immediately how to plug in...They just immediately got [the concept of the film]."
And by touring so much, Biel has seen the progression of cities like Phoenix over the years in regard to accepting bicycle culture.
In comparing his hometown of Portland to the rest of the country, Biel explains that, "In Portland we were developing around bicycling [starting in] 1993. But everywhere else was a little slower in valuing that in America. It's really blown my mind, like in the last five years, everywhere I went on tour is building up around bikes. And if you had asked me 15 years ago about Phoenix, I would have said 'No way, that's not a priority.'"
It is observing that particular sea change that Biel finds so gratifying in sharing his work across the country. "What struck me immediately was that the story of activism was exactly the same in Amsterdam, except that they had more people behind it to push [bicycling] over the edge."
"It's about how you organize and how you strategize [around bicycling] or whatever. But it's also about how many people you have physically bicycling. And to watch that number grow in Phoenix has been really heartwarming."
Aftermass: Bicycling in a Post-Critical Mass Portland screens Tuesday, July 29, at FilmBar. Filmmaker Joe Biel will be present via Skype for a post-film Q&A. More information and tickets ($9) are available at the FilmBar website.
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