MDFF Review: Spoke (2016)

Traversing the South-West coast of America to the East, Spoke documents the travels of a few young adults riding across the country. On their tour they highlight the joys of cycling and question a few select experts and amateur cycling enthusiasts as to why cycling is so deadly in America. The film proclaims America is the most dangerous country in the world for cycling. With upwards of 700 killed each year it is a worrying statistic.

This is a self immersive documentary for creator, director and editor Em Baker. Her presence is felt throughout the fifty-seven minute running time, both behind the camera and in front of it. She is joined by three travelling companions originally. However one, Lauren, drops out rather quickly and another, Nick, after a substantial distance. In the end only her and her partner complete the journey. Even though they are the only stars of the picture, the audience doesn’t really get to know the voyagers in an intimate or meaningful manner. Perhaps the most illuminating one gets to their characters is a quick scene in which Em presents a helmet to her partner for his birthday, or when they play on a see-saw together.

Interjected between scenes of the travellers are one on one interviews with fellow cyclists or road experts. The story’s from cyclists share a common thread, a love of cycling that flows through their life, and a yearning for better cycling facilitation on roads. The stories are obviously biased, and border on  their validity of inclusion, but the tales seems to complete a theme of love of cycling. The other interviews are with state bureaucrat tied into road affairs. The interviews are heavily abridged and edited, one can’t help but wonder the context of the interview. In one Em catches an administrator out on a legal definition technicality. It’s reeks gotcha journalism and with the severely limited screen time he is given, doesn’t seem particularly fair. Though the point remains valid- cyclists bear the same responsibilities of motorists without the same benefits. To highlight this, Em has included the tragic story of a young man- Josh, killed in a hit and run with no justice.

Spoke asks questions of the dangers presented to cyclists, yet disappointingly presents no alternatives to the status quo. The agenda behind the documentary is self-evident, but leaves a viewer wanting a more thorough and factual investigation. A little too much screen time is devoted to first hand accounts. Omissions and inclusions are the crux weakness to this documentary. The film is pulled two non-polar directions between illuminating the dangers of cycling and displaying a home video reel of the intimate road trip between a few friends encountering fellow enthusiasts. A hypothetical film fully exploring either of those two parameters would have been more agreeable than this water and oil mix. Omission and inclusion problems aside, Em Baker has done a fine job for her first documentary and the passion of her project compensates for the few technical flaws of this feature.

Spoke will be playing at the inaugural Melbourne Documentary Film Festival.

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