Cities for people: two films, two stories
As viewed from behind the handlebars
Will You Marry Us
Tom Vanderbilt, writing for his Slate column, recently bemoaned the poor portrayal of the car-less in film. The piece, titled “Dude, Where’s Your Car?‘ highlights a list of films, that is much longer than expected that take advantage of the stereotype that not owning a car is for the misfits, degenerates, losers, pedophiles, drunks, the socially flawed.
Vanderbilt focuses on Hollywood films. Thankfully, these are films that Michael Moore & the Traverse City Film Festival tend to treat with suspect. Festival goers are spared most of the formulaic films that seem ripe to use base cultural stereotypes for a laugh or flawed-character development.
In the case of Will you marry us, set in a small town in Switzerland, the main character Rahel Hubli (Marie Leuenberger) utilizes a bicycle for basic transportation exactly how it’s intended: as a mobility tool. It’s a non-issue. The bike scenes are used for transitioning and showing-off the quaint Swiss town where she lives. When used for a lighthearted moment between Rahel and Ben Hofer (Dominique Jann), it isn’t overplayed. Again, the bike is just a transportation tool. One of many modes that the film exhibits, including extensive walking.
The small Swiss city appears to be a perfect setting for active transportation. It’s dense, streets are narrow and there are plenty of segregated bike paths where needed. Parking for cars is almost non-existent. It’s a cities-for-people activist’s dream where bikes have on-street parking at the front door of businesses and homes; car use is limited in the city center. In fact, most streets are more woonerf than anything else, with walkers, bikers and motorists all sharing the same space with priority to the slowest.
The romantic comedy unfolds as predictably as any other romantic comedy, and the city is a mere backdrop. Still, it’s a model backdrop for dreamers.
This is in stark contrast to the scene in Prague, where the film Auto*Mate takes place. Instead of a quaint Swiss city, this documentary delivers a vivid, street level perspective on the dominance of the automobile in one of the world’s historical cities. It also happens to be a leading example of how the automobile dominates public space, infrastructure policy, culture, economics, the environment.
Auto*Mate introduces us to a movement pushing back. In 2003 the film’s creator Martin Mareček and others started to organize to protect their neighborhoods. They combined street antics as well as direct participation in city government to gain respect, space and commitment for non-motorized & public transportation. The ride is enjoyable. The film is personal, humorous and playful.
Auto*Mate is also sobering and realistic. At one point, Mareček admits there needs to be a point where the idealists are able to turn it over to the experts. With a politicized infrastructure policy and a culture so myopically tied to prioritizing for the motor vehicle, it is difficult for an activist to let go; to trust. Yet, they persist and they become more refined in their actions. At one point, Auto*Mate organizers address the city government, set up like a parliament, to counter the economics of a major new road project. They are smart, informed and, more importantly, involved.
In the opening, he introduces the audience to both film and movement, a monologue worth citing:
I lived in downtown Prague, in the ‘heart of Europe.’ In Prague, ‘the mother of cities,’ as well as ‘the city of cars’… according to statistics, one of the most handicapped cities in Europe. Six years ago, I met my neighbor in the hallway. He was moving: ‘Well, we’re off, we can’t take this anymore.’ I replied: ‘Yeah, I understand, it’s the cars, isn’t it? That noise, that smell…’ The neighbor smiled, puzzled: ‘Not really, it’s more that there’s nowhere to park.’ Is that story absurd? Is that neighbor autistic? No. I think that most of us city folks are this automatic… We’re all in it… Automatically we swear, automatically we drive. Slowly but surely, our game ends with our own auto-mate. Can anything be done about that? I realized that to make a film is not enough. It will only turn into another short essay automatically saying the well-known, addressing the usual receivers. Another submission into the Intellectual Aquarium. Therefore, I’d slowly turn from a film director into a civilian activist, an artistic radical, a political lobbyist. A multi-layered organism, Auto*Mate, was conceived.”
The result is a historical perspective of a very current movement in the Czech capital. It could be almost any city in the world.
This includes Traverse City, with its historical precedence of wide streets, sprawl, self-centered development and a feisty allegiance to the car. In size and scale, Traverse City has more in common with the city in Will you marry us? In practice, we may have a lot more in common with the activists in Prague who have to beg, borrow and steal for even an ounce of respect from city officials who celebrate expensive new freeways through, around and under the ancient city. Admittedly, it’s on a different scale, but the arguments are the same.
As Vanderbilt describes, too often our perception of the carfree and the car-less reflects more of the typical Hollywood portrayal. It’s as if those of use who prefer to walk, bike or bus are doing so out of some social fault, like too many DUI’s. Both of these films portray a different side. One that educates to the car-dominated-mind how completely normal a car-less city can look and operate; another that accurately portrays the informed, empathetic and community orientated character of the staunchest of active-transportation advocates.
Did you see either film, what’d you think?
Auto*Mate, the movement, has it’s own website at www.auto-mat.cz (use Google translator to access).