Charlotte Buchen's portraits of riders include one of a laborer named Antonio (above).

Charlotte Buchen, Wheels Turning

Adam Hartzell July 12, 2010

Charlotte Buchen’s Bay Area Street Portraits take us on a ride with the everyday bicycling citizen of Berkeley and Oakland. Part of the San Francisco section of the Streetsblog network’s Streetfilms, Buchen's series expands on group's urban policy and public transit advocacy with personalized storytelling. These are perfect little perspective pieces, weaving together stories told by the riders themselves: a painter named Terri, Actual Café owner Sal and laborer Antonio. I sat down the other day with Buchen in Oakland, at Urban Blend Café, a former gas station now coffeehouse, to hear more about the wonderful series she started and SF Streetsblog commissioned.

SF360: What was the impetus of the Bay Area Street Portraits series on Streetfilms?

Charlotte Buchen: Matthew Roth [one of the reporters for SF Streetsblog] is a friend of mine and he and I casually talked over a beer about what was possible. Then we sat down with Bryan [Goebel, the editor of SF Streetsblog]. In the beginning, I was pushing this idea of doing films that might bring in a broader audience. SF Streetsblog has a really strong core audience of advocacy people, bike-riders, urban planners, etc. So I pushed this idea of doing a series of portraits that are character-driven, little snapshots and have them be a repeating series that might help them build an audience who weren’t interested [initially] in all their incredible reporting on city hall issues and the various ups and downs of public transit in San Francisco. The idea being that once people were on the site, they would explore more. I think Bryan liked that idea from the beginning.

And I think that, if the series continues, Bryan’s eager to see some films that aren’t just centered [on bicycles]. I think that if we do more, we might also expand to look at MUNI riders and pedestrians. So really it’s about people. I think that would be exciting because I think that’s more challenging. The bicycle is a little more of an obvious link between all of them. . . . I will say that I did want initially to keep it just to the bicycles because I do think it’s a natural conceit to link things together. So I initially was resistant to the idea. But, I guess, when I started thinking about the story possibilities, I did sort of open up to it.

SF360: One of the valuable things about these stories is the subtle subtext that emerges. Like in Terri’s story, Berkeley’s system of bike boulevards are a big part of the piece because we see her daughter ride to school within that system of bike boulevards. And then in Antonio’s story, that’s the film that really hits you, because within his story you touch on the frustrations cyclists have to deal with in getting their bikes stolen and the safety concerns of those who travel on bikes. In that way it does seem to allow for a widening of the audience of Streetfilms, where those aspects would be more explicit. How did you find each of the individuals featured? I can presume how you found Sal, perhaps by being familiar with the café. But the other two individuals, Terri and Antonio, how did you get connected to them?

Buchen:Yeah, you’re right about Sal. I used to live on 60th and Market in Oakland and [Actual Café] opened up in my neighborhood and it seemed like a great place with a natural story there. And then Terri, actually, is interesting. I [tweet] mostly for work for my part-time job at Frontline World [on PBS]. And I think I somehow came across her on Twitter. I don’t know if she was one of my followers and I clicked on her link. But she had a link to her website and I saw her paintings . . . and I emailed her and told her I loved her work. This was before the possibility of doing films for Streetsblog was even on the table. But when it came up, it immediately occurred to me to do something with her and her paintings. That was part of my initial pitch to them. I already had that one in mind because her story, there’s so much there. It’s so rich. It was almost a problem, there were so many different directions to go in. Her memories of her childhood in LA alone brought about so much imagery in my mind and were so vivid and that does give you a sense of where the inspiration for her paintings comes from.

SF360: Antonio’s piece, as you mentioned, is in Fruitvale. When I saw it, I was like, 'Awesome, Fruitvale!’, because it’s such an important neighborhood that doesn’t get much acknowledgment in Bay Area film. How did you get to meet-up with Antonio?

Buchen: From the beginning with the conception of the series, there were many different people I [wanted] to feature. I’m just very curious and I love hearing people’s stories, but I did know from the beginning that one of my first three I really wanted to be somebody who was Latino. You see these guys biking around, often without helmets, on the side of the road. And, definitely, Fruitvale is a neighborhood, like you said, a whole sector of our society that rarely gets interfaced with people everyday. People who work with Mexican Americans or Mexican immigrants know them maybe through work, a lot of us have contact when you see them working in kitchens. Obviously, there are Latinos throughout our society, but there’s definitely a huge portion of that population that you just don’t hear from, unless it’s some fiery, polarized immigration debate, which, to me, isn’t the most enlightening way [to get at] the best of human nature.

So I knew that I wanted to feature a Mexican American bike rider. I unfortunately don’t speak Spanish, so I hired a friend of mine and colleague, Julie Caine, who is someone whom I’ve worked with before, a radio producer and documentary producer and really great with people. So I asked her. We looked at a bicycle clinic in Fruitvale and that turned out not to be quite open yet. And then I think she went to a health clinic, some sort of social services clinic that I think was also affiliated with a church, and she talked to a few guys there. She basically reported back to me about a few of them and said she met this one guy who stood out. He seemed the most comfortable talking and open to talking. And that really was the starting point.

We didn’t really know what the story was going to be. We interviewed him and Julie came and translated for me. But she wasn’t really translating his answers in full on the spot, that would take too long. So it was really once I got the full transcription back that I realized the amazing things he was saying with the fact that he sends bicycles to his son, which just blew me away. After that we went back to talk to him again about it, and I was just like ‘How much does this cost?’ Like, the [financial] logic of it [didn’t make sense]. But that wasn’t why he did it. I mean, he did say that a frame can be more expensive in Mexico. But, still, for him it’s about giving something to his son that he’s touched with his own hands.

SF360: Streetfilms itself has a goal to shoot its films in a walk-the-walk, pedal-the-pedal philosophy, filming most of the pieces on public transportation, bikes, or on foot. Were you able to come close to that goal yourself in filming these?

Buchen: That’s a goal. [Laughter.] That’s a goal. I wasn’t there yet. Figuring out rigs for bicycle mounting [was difficult] and I don’t skateboard, that would be a great way to film, too. I wasn’t quite there yet. But that’s where I’d like to go eventually with these, to sort out filming them from bikes. It would be better for the filmmaking too, honestly. Filming from a car is kind of awkward. But, yes, I was sitting in the back of my, I have a Pontiac Vibe, for some of the shots, with the hatchback flipped open . . .

SF360: I understand that you want to expand it beyond bikes, but when watching these three portraits you definitely show how bikes are a huge part of their lives, particularly in Sal’s piece, when he talks about the joy he experiences when riding around Oakland at night, when we see those images as he rides by lit-up storefronts and he talks about them. For a long time in movies and TV and elsewhere, we have mythologized the car as representing freedom. But now we know it doesn’t really provide that freedom because there are certain compromises we make in the structure of our cities and dependence on oil to accommodate our cars. Your pieces show the new freedom film can associate with active transport, being able to propel yourself somewhere. The point-of-view level you are at when you’re pedaling by things, that really comes out in Sal’s piece. And the joy of watching Terri’s daughter just ride herself to school because so few kids do that now. So I definitely think you redefine the freedom of transport. And I definitely hope you have more opportunities to shoot more. So can you talk a little more about that? Is it at a stalemate point right now? Or are you working on pieces and you just need the funding?

Buchen: I have a few ideas. I did start shooting one piece but it’s sort of on pause. Bryan’s very encouraging and he’s confident he’s going to find funding. And I know that finding funding takes time sorting out how that works out. So we’ll see. I actually am going out of the country for a project until September to late October. So I’m hoping that when I come back that’s when we can really shift it into high gear. It seems far away, but I know it’ll just come up really quickly. I just don’t know. I’m hopeful. I’m optimistic. But I don’t really have the funds to keep doing it on my own without some guarantee of support.

But it’s really nice to hear you say you notice all those little details. I was thinking about those things, like Sal riding at night. I think that riding a bicycle, there is something really filmic about it. That’s how I feel when I’m riding. I think that’s why people fall in love with it. Probably you relate to what he said. You’re always noticing little details, and you’re much closer to life and the smells and the sounds then in a car, obviously. And the soundscape! I’d really like to do something more with that soundscape. People forget to look and see sometimes we don’t see things that are on our everyday routes, we become sort of numb to them. But especially sounds, I want to start focusing on sounds more

SF360: It’s interesting that you mentioned how bikes can flow nicely into film because it’s a really interesting moment right now where Hollywood is out of sync with the reality on the ground. You have a movie like The 40-Year Old Virgin where part of the way they make him a dork is by putting him on a bike. This is totally counter to the movement right now. The reality is more like Medicine for Melancholy.

Buchen: Yeah, it’s like they’re tone deaf. I do want to say that from the beginning when I told some friends I was doing these portraits, people immediately envisioned that I was doing portraits of cool hipsters on fixies. I love fixies and I love hipsters but I definitely did not want to start there because I feel that’s a little bit of a stereotype of the Bay Area bicycle rider.

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