From “Easy Rider” to “The Motorcycle Diaries,” the motorbike has become a potent cinematic symbol of open-road freedom, escape and rebellion.
But “The Greasy Hands Preachers,” the first documentary feature from producer-director team Arthur de Kersauson and Clement Beauvais of Paris-based Mercenary Productions, leans into another kind of curve, beginning with the words of St Francis of Assisi before racing into spiritual and philosophical realms akin to the 70s cult book, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.”
In a globe-spanning road trip, the free-wheeling documentary spotlights a disparate “band of brothers,” a “priesthood” of bikers from around the world, some of whom had quit lucrative white collar jobs and turned a hobby into an all consuming life style with a near-religious fervor. They not only ride and customize classic bikes but also design and build their metal steeds like sculptors.
The tale of mechanics and man gets its world premiere in San Sebastian at midnight on Friday. Part of the Film Festival’s innovative Savage Cinema strand of action, adventure and extreme sports movies, it also caused a serious festival buzz when Orlando Bloom, who serves as the film’s executive producer, confirmed he would attend the midnight screening, along with leading cast members roaring up the red carpet of the Kursaal Theatre astride their classic bikes.
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Filmed entirely in 16mm in spectacular locations ranging from the misty Scottish Highlands to the searing white heat of the Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats, producer De Kersauson and director Clement Beauvais explore a modern day return to manual work through the passion of motorcycle enthusiasts who have found a unique path to a kind of fulfillment.
In the ephemeral era of the Internet , the wildly diverse cast of characters reflect on how the once lowly status of the grease- stained motor mechanic is gradually being elevated to that of the respected craftsman and artist.
De Kersauson and Beauvais, Parisians who met at university in Sydney, Australia, have been working together as producers and directors for eight years, firstly in Sydney and subsequently back in Paris, making documentary shorts before entering the extraordinary world of “The Greasy Hands Preachers,” where mechanics becomes art and a way of life.
What started your journey into making the film? Was it a personal passion for motorbikes?
Clement Beauvais: I don’t ride. But I found a real interest following our protagonists, getting to know them, and explore how they have built a good life for themselves. It was more about the journey behind those who make motorcycles as a living.
Arthur de Kersauson: I love motorcycles and I ride. But what triggered our desire to make this film was the understanding that the story of these white collar workers trying to make a happy life for themselves by working with their hands as mechanics was universal. Modern societies have devalued manual work over intellectual work since the 60s to the point that we have lost sight of all the great things manual work can bring. What is work as a value? What can one can expect from work? Is manual work an answer to the increasing virtuality of most jobs?
You travel the world in the film, how long was the shoot and were there any difficulties on the road?
AK: It lasted for a year. The main challenge was to shoot a documentary in film (16mm) with limited budget and film stock. That is also what was exciting. We had to decide what we wanted and we couldn’t afford to keep our options open. But at the end we believe that it is your self-imposed constraints that make your film special.
CB: We started in Bonneville Salt Flat in Utah and ended up in central Java in Indonesia.
The film is called “The Greasy Hands Preachers” and focuses on a return to manual work. Is entering the world of motorcycle mechanics like a religious calling?
CB: It’s more a way of life. There is no distinction between their life and their work. As one of protagonist said: “It’s a complete circle.” We saw that in their garage, beyond repairing or creating custom bikes they were just drawing a path to happiness.
AK: We all have expectations for our lives. It requires courage and honesty to challenge the status quo of your own existence. To dare believing that to be happy you must design your own life and make you own path. We have met truly happy people, honest and enthusiastic. We believe that what their happiness is made of is not unattainable and that anyone can aspire to it.
The film is shot entirely in 16mm. Why did you opt for what is now a relatively expensive format?
CB: It’s as much as an aesthetic choice as it is a working method. I enjoy film, especially 16mm. It gives a timeless feel. We felt that this format fitted the subject. Like our protagonists, we really wanted to take the time to do things the way we wanted.
AK: Filming in 16mm is also a great way to make a different film. When we told people that we were shooting in 16mm they started looking at us differently. Our commitment to go the hard way resulted in people’s respect and curiosity. It definitely helped a lot.
Orlando Bloom is executive producer and is set to launch the film in San Sebastian. How did he get involved?
AK: We finished filming in March this year. Then we had a rough cut, and I knew Orlando had a true passion for custom bikes for many years. We had heard great things about him. We decided to reach out to him to show him the film and have is feedback. You know how it ended….