Sunday, July 19, 2009

Long Way Down

The face of Africa, as seen through the eyes of Festina, a Zambian woman who raises children orphaned by HIV. If the movie I am reviewing here had been focused on her, with the best will in the world, no one in the West would have seen it. So instead a young Scottish movie star and his side kick get some donated BMW motorcycles (GS1200s of course) and they roll cameras for 15,000 miles across the Dark Continent:
I have little idea what a North American never exposed to the wilds of the African Third World would make of this movie, but interestingly enough the stars themselves have no experience of Africa either and their fear and awe and amazement should translate well. Ewan McGregor is known to audiences around the world as a Star of recent Star Wars movies (though no one recognized him when he played the tourist on the former set in Tunisia!):
McGregor's refusal to take himself seriously gives the film added charm and when we are introduced to his very average family (including a motorcycling Dad) in Scotland it's obvious that no one in his real life is going to let his success on screen go to his head. His sidekick Charley Boorman, son of a movie director, is the goof of the film, an accomplished rider and someone not afraid to say what's on his mind.In the background, McGregor's wife, who in a moment of charged controversy, decides to ride along with the boys on one short leg of their three month trip.
This is the second movie made by Boorman/McGregor following on from the success of their Long Way Around a documentary of their circumnavigation, which I thought carried more drama and uncertainty as they struggled across Siberia and Mongolia testing themselves and their format. In this film the formula is written, the crew includes survivors of the first film including the extraordinary Swiss rider and cameraman Claudio who does what they do, while recording it silently and beautifully for all to see. This is a professional film made to the highest standards which my paltry pictures do not in any way convey. Whether or not you agree with the premise that a couple of naive goofs loose in Africa on excessively complex motorcycles is worth seeing is another matter.

They admire Roman ruins (in Libya), the pyramids (in Egypt) the Nile (in Sudan) the mountains (in Ethiopia) the wildlife(in East Africa) the skulls (in Rwanda) and the lake (in Malawi) all with due reverence and respect. They inflict themselves on villagers in an effort to understand their lives, they say, and they alternate between roadside caf├ęs and luxury hotels and campgrounds: They cross 32 borders into and out of sixteen countries and if nothing else I hope this film will convince you not to think of the African continent as one country. Of course this is a 9-episode television show with 8 people traveling in two cars and on three motorcycles with a budget of God-knows-how-much, so they have "fixers" in each country to guide them through. Boorman and McGregor ride every mile of the way on fully loaded 800-pound 1200cc motorcycles, carrying their clothes and camping gear with them. But this is not a shoe string operation, not with three cameras, a doctor and well stocked spare parts boxes, all in attendance...
Because this is a motorcycle movie on dreadful roads and because these people are British they enjoy making fun of themselves and the ridiculous challenge of riding come what may, sand, rain, wind and tedium included. They get tired and fractious, they argue and disagree and they make up when it's time to get riding. Some of the riding is appalling in dreadful conditions, and McGregor's wife is shown learning to ride on her short section "with the boys" in Malawi in a most unflattering light.
Eve is Francophone, (French, Quebecois, Belgian, Swiss, who knows?) but she has ze British stiff upper lip and despite numerous falls, all on camera, she plugs away earning the grudging respect of Boorman who becomes odd man out for ten days while the wife intrudes on the boys' adventure:
I rode across West Africa when I was a callow 19-year old and took three months to bumble from Tunis to Yaounde in Cameroon before hepatitis A, laid me low and forced the repatriation of myself and my Yamaha SR500. I spent three weeks in hospital in Terni recovering. It is clear to me, looking back, that the assessment of an experienced German traveler I met along the way, that I wasn't ready for such an adventure, was entirely true, but from the vantage of middle age I know that having made the journey I am better equipped to accept the loss of my youth. A dream deferred is a dream denied and there are too many middle aged, middle class dreamers who teeter between fear and regret because they didn't try. I recall traveling completely alone with a wad of traveler's checks, no GPS, no sat phone, no proper riding gear, no camel back water bottle to combat hydration...These two had all that and more and a ridiculous schedule- if the trip wasn't completed in 85 days the sky would collapse for some, never stated, reason. They had a base team in London following along to update their website and riders along the way, including this Triumph rider in Zambia, fell in to do their bit for celebrity travel:And yet, Boorman and McGregor show us the best of travel: the friendship strained, the expectation of violence that never ever came even close, the great physical beauty of a world that still today remains largely unexplored by most people and feared by even more of us, and they also show us how truly tough it is to ride a motorcycle a long way in trying conditions. This isn't celebrity survivor, this is two 35 year olds getting away from every day crap and pushing themselves, yes self indulgently, but also as a mirror to us in our daily lives.
What dream have you deferred, what fear have you not faced, they ask us, and the answer they themselves provide is that the risk taken will be endlessly rewarding. I can't wait for their next ride, South America it is rumored, and with all their thoughtless sentimentality ("Why?" they keep chirping when faced with evidence of Man's Inhumanity to Man in Rwanda and elsewhere; an easy expression of false empathy when you are enjoying the exceptionally good life of the upper class First World) and self effacing humor (endless mockery of Hollywood, harbinger of their wealth, which is rather fun I confess) they will, I know, put on an excellent entertainment. Now available from Nextflix, and if you have not yet seen Long Way Round, start there. Enjoy the show!