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Endurance, strength, determination, success, broken bones, mechanical destruction, battered egos and death. This is the Finke Desert Race – one of the world’s most difficult off-road courses which runs from Alice Springs to Aputula in the Northern Territory.
It’s also the focus of a new documentary, Finke: There and Back, directed by motorbike enthusiast Dylan River and produced by Isaac Elliott, a racer-turned-filmmaker whose inspiring story as a wheelchair-bound rider is a major focus throughout the film.
Finke: There and Back is set to have its Western Australian premiere at CinefestOZ next week following successful festival screenings in both Sydney and Melbourne.
“A couple of my short films have played at CinefestOZ, but I haven’t been able to make it over,” River tells Cinema Australia. “This will be my first trip to the festival. I’ve been to Western Australia a bunch of times, but I’ve never been down south, so I’m really looking forward to it.”
Viewing any of River’s films you know you’re in the hands of an incredible talent. But you’d expect nothing less from the son of one of Australia’s most celebrated filmmakers, Warwick Thornton.
“I’ve come to this realisation that the desert you race through is the god and the race itself is the religion in a way. It’s definitely got some sort of spiritual power to it.”
Interview by Matthew Eeles
Tell us about the origins of Finke: There and Back.
I grew up riding and racing motorbikes. I grew up in Alice Springs and Finke was always the pinnacle of racing around those parts. I soon realised it’s actually the pinnacle of off-road racing in Australia. It’s one of those things that everyone wants to do. My dad started racing it when I was a kid for a number of years. When I was 16 I got my first chance to race it and that was the first year he didn’t race. We sort of swapped. Since then I’ve raced it seven times. My first race I finished reasonably well, my second race I finished considerably better. Half the race is just about finishing. On my third attempt I ended up having a big crash and I ended up getting airlifted back to Alice Springs and that’s where my love-hate relationship with the race actually started. [Laughs]. I raced it again the year after that and had another crash, the following year after that I raced it and had a mechanical problem, then had a string of really bad luck. After a few years of not finishing from either crashing or mechanical problems I kind of went, fuck, what is it about this race? Why do I keep doing it? Why does anyone keep doing it? All my friends go through similar problems and they all have a tough relationship with this race. That’s where the gestation for this film came from. That’s where it all started. I wanted to be involved in this race without having to compete and I wanted to express myself through the stories of others.
Take us back to your first race.
I was 16. I had been dreaming of racing the Finke at least six years before that. I had been counting down the days until my sixteenth birthday and I knew I could compete in the next Finke. When you’re 16 you’re considered a senior rider in the motocross world. I had a job at McDonald’s and my mum and dad helped me a little bit. [Laughs]. My dad was busy at the time and my mum was disinterested and didn’t really want to support me doing it because she knew how dangerous it is. I think she bought me a helmet or some protective gear, but other than that she just hoped I would come back ok. I remember being extremely nervous and had done a bit of racing before but this was my first senior race. I didn’t know what to expect and I’d say I was underprepared. I think being young and semi fit got me through in the end. I think I finished 80th out of 500 bikes. It was very much a taste. Everyone around me told me I just needed to get there and back. I didn’t need to prove anything, I just needed to get there and back and see the finish. That’s what I did.
So that’s where the title comes from?
The original race was called There and Back. The term is brought up so much in everyone’s lingo and conversations about the race. Everyone is constantly saying that you just need to get there and back. There’s a mind set that you might not finish and you might not come back from this race. It’s always in the back of your mind. Just make it there and back.
What response did you get from organisers when you told them you wanted to make this documentary? I imagine it’s a complex organisation.
I guess at the start for them it was just another film. I told them that this was going to be different. I told them that this isn’t about the race and that I don’t even care who wins the race and that I don’t even want to see footage of riders. I wanted to tell some stories of people. They soon realised what I was filming wasn’t the usual thing that everyone wanted to film. I wanted to follow the ambulances and we were getting permission from the hospital. We were filming pre-meetings building up to the race and emergency services and police around the race. I think that’s when they realised I was doing something a bit different. They’ve seen the film since and I think they like it. [Laughs].
There’s a voiceover at the beginning of the film telling the audience that this race is difficult to put into words. How would you describe the event?
Heartbreaking in so many different ways. There are lots of words that come to mind. Heartbreak and an adrenaline rush. Isolation. It’s one of those things that has a connection to the desert and a connection to the land that you’re racing through. I’ve come to this realisation that the desert you race through is the god and the race itself is the religion in a way. It’s definitely got some sort of spiritual power to it.
What kind of person do you have to be to take part? The guys that you focus on in the film seem to have an intensity about them. Would you say there’s an addiction there?
Absolutely. I’ve got that addiction. I still do. I’m trying to work out if I’ll race next year or not. There is a real intensity and there is a real addiction. You meet so many different characters being a part of this race. There’s an intensity from the people who want to win and there’s an intensity from the people who want to come back from injury and finish the race. You get people from all walks of life. There’s a lot of guys having a midlife crisis and they’re wanting to go and do this race and they’re the ones we usually see sprawled out along the track. [Laughs]. There were eleven women who raced last year and that’s a growing number. You get anyone from 16 years old to the oldest rider who’s 60.
You mentioned women taking part in the race. It feels like an extremely male dominated race. How do the women hold up?
It is a male-dominated sport. There have been very, very few females who have raced it over the course of its history. Five years ago there were three females who raced and now there are eleven and that’s growing. They made their own class the year after we filmed. In terms of the film itself, we did follow some female characters but they didn’t make the final cut. That was a very hard decision to make because they were in the film for a very long time but their story wasn’t serving a purpose in the film other than being a novelty and I think it’s worse to put a female in it for novelty than anything else. It was a hard decision to cut our female characters out. I also followed the story of the cars in the race and covered their stories but when it came to the edit we realised that ultimately it was a film about the motorbikes, so we had to cut them too.
What’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen on this circuit?
There have been some big accidents. I’ve got a friend in a wheelchair, Isaac, who you see in the film. He’s a good friend of mine. The hardest thing is obviously deaths and seeing that happen. I’ve had three or four friends who have died either practicing for the race or during the race. I have a few friends in wheelchairs and a few mates who have had very close calls. The isolation is the hardest part. It’s actually quite safe on race day but when you’re practicing 150 kilometers from phone reception and something happens, you worry about breaking a leg and bleeding out and that kind of stuff.
At the opposite end of the scale, what’s the most uplifting thing you’ve seen?
The relationships. It’s when everyone finishes and all the family members are giving each other a hug with a huge sense of achievement, that’s what’s uplifting about it. Defining all the odds and conquering the desert. It doesn’t matter who you are, finishing is a huge part of this race. Every race I’ve finished I’ve shed a tear crossing the finishing line. It’s not just finishing but it’s the six months preparation, the outlay and everything else that comes with crossing that finishing line and saying you did it.
Does the race get the media attention you think it deserves? This was the first I’ve ever heard of it.
That’s interesting. It’s growing. It’s definitely growing. Profiles of people who do the race are internationally growing and that always helps. I think it does get good media coverage but I think just off-road racing in Australia in general doesn’t get enough media coverage. I think Finke is probably one of the luckier one. But compared to V8 Supercars and those types of circuit races, it doesn’t get anywhere near that kind of exposure. It’s such a hard thing to cover. This film was expensive to make. We had 15 cameras and two helicopters and two days to make a feature film. It is really hard to cover this race. It’s not in a circle, it’s in a straight line so you only get one moment to cover someone passing.
Tell us about Isaac Elliott. When did you first meet him?
Isaac and I met in Alice Springs through motocross. I became friends with Isaac soon after his accident. I was about 16 at the time and he would have been in his early twenties. We created a bond through motorbikes but also because he was becoming interested in filmmaking. My parents are both filmmakers so he asked me if I could help him make a short film. He thought I knew about making films because my parents were filmmakers but I knew nothing. [Laughs]. I wasn’t interested in making films at that time but that’s where our friendship started to blossom. My first few films were with him. It was through him my interest in filmmaking grew. Here we are making this film together.
That’s amazing. He must be chuffed he’s such a big part of this film.
It’s interesting because he does come across as being the main character of this film with some other major players alongside him. He was not originally the main character. It was through the edit that that became apparent. I think that’s because he was so involved in the making of this film and he was a producer. I never knew he would be the main character. It was definitely something that became blatantly obvious that his story is what connects all the others. We decided that he had to be brought to the forefront of the film and be that feature character. He was probably anti that at the beginning to be honest.
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Seeing Isaac get on that bike at the start of the race is just about one of the most inspiring things I’ve ever seen. How did other riders react to having him on the circuit?
He’s widely supported. Half the people think he’s mad and that he’s an idiot and the other half think he’s an absolute inspiration. Everyone is very supporting. Everyone wants to know how he put the bike together technically. People usually want to know how it’s all possible.
Have you had any enquiries come through about how this bike was put together?
There are a couple of people in the world who have put together similar bikes. He’s following some previous designs with his own modifications.
Your dad told me recently that you’re on your own path as a filmmaker and you want to forge your own name. Do you still call on him for advice from time to time?
Absolutely. He and my mother would both be my biggest inspirations. It’s strange because I fell in love with motorbike riding through him and his love for it. It’s inevitable that my love of filmmaking would come from him and my mother. I think that partially myself racing Finke was a way to make my Dad proud and filmmaking in the early years was about making my parents proud. I think even now I’m just a big kid because I’ll make a film and I don’t really care what anyone thinks, but I’ll show my Mum and Dad and just hope they love it. [Laughs]. My Dad said to me, “Why do you want to make a film about that bloody race? Go and do something else.” [Laughs]. I was adamant that I wanted to make this film. He saw it and he cried and he loved it. That’s all that matters. He asked me to do Sweet Country with him so hopefully our relationship making films together will continue. Hopefully there are many more to come.
What a partnership.
You’ve made shorts, you’ve shot a feature and now you’ve made a documentary. What do you want to do going forward?
I don’t know. It’s whatever pays the bills some days. [Laughs]. I shoot, and that’s my bread and butter, so I’m happy to just help other people make their films at the moment and work on other people’s projects. I’ve got a web series for SBS which is going ahead later this year to be released early next year. It’s a series called Robby Hood which is a spinoff of Robin Hood and a retelling of that. It’s about a young Aboriginal living in a community who’s basically a little criminal but everything he does he does for good reasons and with good intentions.
Finke: There and Back will screen at the CinefestOZ Film Festival which runs from 22 – 26 August. Details here.
Finke: There and Back will be released nationally via Madman Entertainment later in the year.