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Spot on Directors: Fredrik Gertten


When a child first rides a bike, freedom is the sensation that comes flooding in. I can glide atop the pavement! I can take myself places! When Aline Cavalcante and Dan Koeppel hop atop their bikes in São Paulo and L.A., they too feel that sensation. Yet somehow in their quest to take themselves where they’re going with their own power, they are making a political statement, climbing atop their activist chariots and riding bravely into the mainstream crawl of the automotive norm. Why? They live in cities where car is king.

Swedish director Fredrik Gertten lives in Malmö, Sweden and he hops on his bike every day to pedal himself to and fro. Much as in the world’s cycling capitals Copenhagen and Amsterdam, riding a bike is not a political statement or environmental stand. It’s just a practical way of going about one’s daily business, a relatively safe and reliable means of transportation.

Our film of the month for May, BIKES VS CARS takes a humanistic approach to the environmental issue of transportation. Although less cars on the road certainly leads to greener societies, the film presents a picture of the devastating and often fatal chaos that prevails in cities around the world where the automotive industry has been allowed a free hand to draw up their car-dominating urban schemes. Uncovering some of the motivating factors – both political and financial – Gertten presents a people-centric look at how we choose to get ourselves around.

What is it that draws you to documentary film?

Documentaries are, most of the time, stronger than fiction. It’s also a genre with a growing audience all over the world. There are so many people around the world who want to know and understand more about the world. I have always been interested in society and human stories. When you make docs you combine a lot of interests, skills and passions. BIKES VS CARS showcases that quite well. I love bicycles, I am interested in trying to understand how the powerful do their tricks and how we can challenge that, which is quite important right now when our planet is in crisis over climate and overspending natural resources. I also love to travel and meet people, creating my own projects. I love my job.

What is your history with documentary? Is there a red thread that has followed you throughout your career?

I have done docs for more than twenty years. I came from journalism but also from a background of organizing music festivals in my city. I don’t know how to describe my thread more than passion. I have been doing films about the Malmö FF, the football team from my city, the changes of the city- including architecture, building of the bridge- and also international stories like BANANAS!* and Big Boys Gone Bananas!*

Was your experience making with BIKES VS CARS like any of the other filmmaking experience you have had?

Every film is a new challenge. This film is more of an essay film, but I also wanted it to be character driven, I needed one person to carry the weight of the gridlocks, the aggression, the climate change on her shoulders. In my films I want to package information with emotions so it stays with you. The idea is that if the audience make the conclusions themselves it will stay for ever.  A lot of people tell me that they can never ever buy a Dole banana again, or that they from now on will commute on bike: I love to hear that.

What is it that drove you to tell this story? How did you come across the characters? And how did it develop?

I always been interested in city planning and what makes or breaks a good city. At this point in history most city planners know that the private car is making life in cities unbearable. People are stuck in traffic for hours every day. First I pin pointed the bigger structure of the film. I wanted to talk about how the car lobby once upon a time took over the cities and how they keep selling their ideas today. I wanted to have a young woman as a lead in the film so we started to look for her. She should be a person in development, not a classic leader. We found Aline blogging and asked for a Skype with her. I could se that she could work fine on camera. From then on it was a step-by-step process. It takes time and I am never certain of success. It’s a hard job, but with a great team of producers, cinematographers and editors everything can be possible.

What has been the primary conversation you have observed people are having around the film? Has it stirred up some strong opinions?

I have now met audience all over the world with this film. The very cool thing is that people everywhere starts to talk about their own city. The film inspires and works as a tool for people working for change. They might be politicians, city planners, architects, urban developers, students or just people who wants to ride their bike to work without getting killed.

Often after watching documentaries, people wonder what the one most important thing they can do is? What is this one thing you would recommend to someone after watching Bikes vs. Cars?

The best thing you can do for a film is to tell more people about it. Tell them to watch on a platform where to filmmakers get payed like Vimeo. For us at WG Film a film is much more than a screening. We update our Facebook and Twitter everyday with new stories about the subject matter. This community work is joyful but also quite expensive. There’s no funding at all for that work so all help we can get to help this dialog with audience around the world, the better.

What would your documentary playlist consist of? 

The documentary world is growing and there are so many good films coming out. Check out the films supported by Influence Film, or check the programming of festivals that have played your favorite films. In Sweden check the programming of Doc Lounge. If you like a film of one filmmaker, check out the website of the producer or distributor. You will be surprised of many great films you can find. Enjoy.

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Save 15% by using the code BikesInfluence when renting or buying BIKES VS CARS on Vimeo.

BIKES VS CARS is Influence Film Club’s featured films for May. Each month Influence Film Club hand-picks one of our favorite docs as our club’s featured film to watch and discuss together.  Throughout the month, starting with our newsletter and continuing on our website and social media we will extend the conversation by exploring the various issues touched on in the film, providing filmmaker interviews, suggesting ways to influence, and discussing documentaries in general – because after all, We Love Docs.

Interview by: Isis Graham