Cycling, safety and the cinema

While making a promotion for a Kickstarter fundraising campaign for “Backpedal,” director Ryan Cockrell was “buzzed” by a woman driving a Mini-Cooper and the exchange was captured on film.

After two years of filming and editing, a locally produced 70-minute documentary on the battles over bicycling and pedestrian accommodations in Charleston is complete with the exception, perhaps, of how it ends.

That ending for “Backpedal” may come Tuesday night as Charleston City Council, once again, considers approving a bike lane on the Legare Bridge spanning the Ashley River.

“It’s a wrap if they (local officials) build it,” says film director Ryan Cockrell of Lunch and Recess, a film production company on Broad Street.

“If they build it, it says Charleston’s the city I want to be in. We’re going places. If they don’t build it, it says we’re not there yet. We’re making dumb moves. We’re shooting down good ideas ... and the story continues,” says Cockrell.

He adds a rough cut is “watchable” now, though that could change based on what transpires in the coming weeks.

“And that means the release date will be a good ways away. Maybe as much as a year or more depending on if we go the festival route which requires the movie stay out of the public realm until the festival.”

The basic premise of “Backpedal” is that peninsula Charleston is scaled for humans to walk and bike to get around, but that cars jam its historic streets and make it dangerous for people.

“The movie is not just about bicycles, but how we get around Charleston. It doesn’t cover topics like buses or other alternate transportation. We’re focusing on bicycling, walking and skateboarding.”

The filming for “Backpedal” started months before Kurt Cavanaugh took over as director at Charleston Moves, the area’s primary bike and pedestrian advocacy group. He is excited about the potential “Backpedal” has for Charleston and beyond.

Cavanaugh says the greatest potential of “Backpedal” is “to normalize everyday bicycling here in Charleston, which will make our streets safer.”

“The film can remind those behind the wheel to be more patient and cautious. More importantly, it may change the perception of our policy makers and elected officials that bike and pedestrian infrastructure is a vital part of the transportation infrastructure network and not an optional amenity.”

For the staff at Lunch and Recess, the film evolved into something bigger the more they filmed.

“What was supposed to be a simple, low-hanging fruit little project where we just film these interviews with these experts has turned into a two-year long, major endeavor that’s taken up a lot of time,” says Cockrell.

“It all started as this idea that there are a lot of smart people in Charleston who have a lot of smart things to say and who have been working on these issues for a long time. Let’s just collect their thoughts in one place and see what that looks like. That would be easy, but it wasn’t that easy.

“The thing has grown and progressed and got more complicated as we went. We’ve gone down side roads and found some really interesting stories.”

Cockrell says Lunch and Recess has long done “passion projects,” which tend to make little or no money, with short films, but that “Backpedal” is the second of two feature- length films (40 minutes or longer) where art trumps profits.

The other film, “Color of Fire,” about a World War II German soldier, won the Indie Grits Festival’s “The People’s Grit” award in Columbia in April.

Cockrell says “Backpedal” has been a labor of love.

“If someone had hired us to do this (“Backpedal”) or if we had to rent the equipment and pay the people who are not full-time employees, I would estimate the costs at between $500,000 to $750,000 in just time and equipment rental,” says Cockrell.

“It’s expensive because of the way we went about it. We shot it like we would a paying project. We shot it on our big camera with three person crews ... It’s a luxury to be able to shoot it that way.”

He adds that the only outside money for the film was a $10,000 Kickstarter campaign for musical scoring and other finishing touches.

To make it work with Lunch and Recess’ limited staff, Cockrell says they shifted paid, commercial work around to free up staff members to work on the film. Editor Dorian Warnick concentrated on “Color of Fire,” while Brittany Paul is focusing on “Backpedal.”

The genesis of “Backpedal” came years ago when Columbia-based Palmetto Cycling Coalition hired Cockrell’s company to do public service announcements on safe cycling.

Cockrell recalls Peter Wilborn, a local attorney and founder of the Bike Law, pushing for the PSAs to be “interesting and fun, instead of just instructional.”

“As we made those pieces, I thought this was cool,” says Cockrell. “I wasn’t a bicyclist at the time. I was living in Columbia. I had a bicycle but it was hard to get around. Plus there were a lot of hills.”

Making those spots stuck with Cockrell, who was raised on James Island, and his business partners when they relocated the business to Charleston. Cockrell moved to the North Central neighborhood and soon discovered, after being prompted by business partner Ethan Jackson five years ago, that riding his bike to work was the way to go.

“The first time I did it (ride his bike to work), it was awesome. It was fun. It was faster,” says Cockrell, noting ideal conditions in Charleston of being flat and warm most of the year. “I wondered why more people didn’t ride their bikes, but the more I rode, the more I realized it was sketchy (safety-wise) to ride a bike in Charleston.”

So Cockrell wanted to help, in his own way, contribute to getting conditions for bicycling, as well as walking and skateboarding, better in Charleston.

“My talent is filmmaking. We have this business. We have all this equipment and sometimes have time. We’ll let the advocates do their job and I’ll talk to people and see what this is all about.”

But do documentaries that advocate a certain position on a social issue really accomplish anything?

Mark Sloan, director of the College of Charleston’s Halsey Institute, who has a master’s degree in photography and film, says advocacy films do have the power to influence, but it depends on how they are made and marketed.

“I think these kinds of films take on a life of their own after they are made. There is much serendipity involved, to be sure, but most of the successful ones have a sophisticated roll-out marketing strategy that happens on multiple platforms simultaneously: internet streaming, media appearances by principle players, social media campaigns.”

Sloan pointed to the film “Blackfish” raising public awareness of the plight of orcas in captivity, which “successfully leverage(d) public sentiment, emotion and common sense to make their point.”

“I would love to see polling data about people’s opinions of orcas in captivity before and after that film. I think it is absolutely extraordinary that Sea World has canceled its breeding program and is shutting down performances altogether. That is the so-called ‘Blackfish effect,’ and it is a direct result of this film,” says Sloan.

“Once the film started gaining traction, it started to be shown in more outlets and to people who were not the demographic typically associated with those likely to be converted. Younger folks were able to get Uncle Ernie to sit down and watch the film with them. This created a groundswell that ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ was hoping for but did not achieve.”

While Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth” and films made by liberal director Michael Moore seem to mark the beginnings of the advocacy film era, Sloan says they have been around for decades. He noted that the anti-marijuana film “Reefer Madness” was made in 1936.

But what has changed in the 21st century has been the revolution in media.

“I do think the relative affordability of producing a high quality video has leveled the playing field considerably, so the digital era has given birth to a new kind of advocacy. It is now possible for activists to make a video documentary about deplorable living conditions for Syrian refugees and upload it within a day to the internet,” says Sloan.

But with the proliferation, Sloan says success depends on cutting through the clutter and finding ways to get a film or video to go viral and create “a greater resonance than just the ‘choir.’ ”

Regardless, Sloan says the genre of advocacy documentaries is here to stay, for better or worse.

“The cynic in me thinks their makers will become more skilled at manipulating our emotions and engaging us to the point of making ‘their’ struggle our ‘cause celebre.’ And, this is not necessarily a bad thing. I also think there will be many more important films made that have lasting cultural implications,” says Sloan.

Both Sloan and Cockrell, who do not know each other, say that despite the fact that “Backpedal” focuses on a very local community, it could have broad appeal.

“Many have said Charleston is the most European of American cities, and that it’s streetscapes are at the scale of pedestrians. That is all true. I think we are perhaps a decade away from an enlightened perspective on things like bike lanes, pedestrian safety and reduced use of automobiles,” says Sloan.

“In stark contrast to ‘Blackfish,’ where the viewers of the film really had to give up very little in order to support the message of the film (i.e., boycotting Sea World), the ‘Backpedal’ folks are not only asking people to change their attitudes toward cyclists, they are calling for a wholesale overhaul of habits, public policy, and civic responsibility.”

Cockrell agrees that “Backpedal” won’t hit the heights of “Blackfish,” which set the bar high.

“It (‘Backpedal’) is no ‘Blackfish,’ but if you care about urbanism or you live in Charleston, you’ll find it interesting.”

Because the success of a documentary often depends on how it’s rolled out, seeing the full-length “Backpedal” may take awhile. And a premiere in the Holy City appears unlikely.

“The doc game is tough and we’re learning,” says Cockrell, noting the rules they had to follow to get into the Indie Grits Festival.

“In order for the documentary to do the most good, it’s got to go as far as it can go.”

“For now, what we know to do is to take it through the festival route. They want your premiere. If you blow the premiere, they might not take you and the film might not have a good launch.”