In documentary terms, what is there not to love about vast white salt flats, impenetrable blue skies, noise, adrenalin and speed… lots of speed.
This was what Belgian filmmaker Eva Küpper, herself no slouch on two wheels, was happy to sign up for when she came across Aussie Ben Felten, a man rendered blind with a degenerative eye condition, who was nevertheless determined to break the land speed record for unsighted riders.
Küpper chronicled Ben’s efforts for three years, at the same time following his riding partner and guide Kevin Magee (aka Magoo), a World Grand Prix legend, who himself suffered a sickening accident (which we see footage of in the film) that all but ended his career.
Also thrown into the mix is the juvenile Jed, a gentle Harry Styles lookalike whose favourite pastime is to ride bulls rodeo style. Sadly, he is recently diagnosed with a similar degenerative eye disease, and therefore sees Ben as a symbol of both hope and inspiration.
But speed is of the essence and the film powers towards a cliff-edge finale in which Ben must go for broke if he is to stand any chance of realising his dream.
Dark Rider is produced by Serendipity Films in Belgium, together with fellow Belgians Clin D’Oeil Films and Rotterdam-based Dutch Volya Films, as well as BR/Arte, RTBF Télévision belge and Canvas. Producer Ellen De Waele will be representing the film at EFM.
What was it like for Küpper and her female production companions to enter what seemed an almost exclusively a male domain to make her film?
“I have been used to those worlds for a while,” she responds, simultaneously recalling that the first headline ever coined about her read ‘Eva Knievel’ [IDFA Daily 2010]. “I have been obsessed with motor cycles since I was a little kid… I just loved them and I started riding on race tracks in England and Europe for a long time. I was really part of it.
“So I got a lot of respect for being a woman and being so interested in what was going on in their world. I think the guys really appreciated it. It’s not something that is very usual or found very often. I felt fine swimming in those waters.”
The camerawork in the film is beautiful, with one scene towards the climax resembling a landscape Rothko in which the screen is bifurcated, blue above, white below, with two tiny vapour trails diminishing out of sight (and out of radio contact to the consternation of onlookers).
“My DOP Carl [Rottiers] was just so thrilled when I called him up to say ‘motorcycle, salt flats, Australia, here is something for you’,” says Küpper. “He is also a petrolhead, as they say, and it was just perfect for him, and he has such a beautiful way of capturing things, and we are so well aligned. It took me a long time to find someone who can really connect with what I have in my head… I am actually very proud of what we did. It was a dream in terms of cinematography and what you can achieve.”
A major challenge, however, was the sheer remoteness of the salt flats, which are made available one week in the year by the Aboriginal custodians for whom the land is sacred.
“It is something you really can’t tell from the film but it is so hot. It is 50 degrees Celsius on the salt and it makes all the emotions, the tension, the excitement, the ups and the many downs so intense, there are lots of things that can go wrong,” Küpper stresses. “The weather can go horrid and in an hour things can change. And technically things change, and there are all sorts of obstacles that they encounter, and we had really no idea which way it was going to go.”
“And there is nothing there, it is just salt and there are no showers,” she adds. “No electricity, no nothing. We were in a stinky old camper, me with four guys and no showers for 10 days. It was interesting. I got the man musky experience all the way down to the core.”
Other than her love for speed on two wheels [Küpper admits to approaching velocities on the track similar to those we encounter on the salts] a key factor that inspired the film is that the director herself has a disabled older brother who was injured in what she terms “a very gruesome accident’ when he was 23 years old. He is still living with the consequences of the incident after he “clawed his way back from a very dark time.”
“I really recognised those things in Ben, but also in Kevin and Jed, all three of them in different ways and what they were going through. There was a real sense of recognition. I understood what was going on. This wasn’t about making a really cool motor cycle story. [Their stories] moved me in a very different way.”