WORLD VIEW: AUSTIN VINCE
Austin Vince is founding father of the Adventure Travel Film Festival held in London’s Mill Hill in August and in other world-wide locations later. Having served in the military, he’s more famous for his globe trotting exploits on smaller four-stroke motorcycles but has also nipped across Morocco on a bicycle. Engaging and loquacious on the one hand; he has an extremely infectious do first; talk later attitude. Encouraging people to explore, have their adventures and document them, whether it’s by motor/cycle, canoe, hitch-hiking, tractor or truck. Michael Stenning finds out more…
MS “So, Austin, looking at your biopic, you’ve packed a phenomenal amount into your life and appear to have struck an enviable balance between work and exploration. Tell us a little more about your background and how you came to this particular career."
AV “Well, I was the last of six children and growing up, the sense of adventure was to some extent a normal part of my childhood. When my youngest sister (seven years my senior) was 17/18 she went travelling through the Indian sub continent and we’d often receive letters in those little blue airmail envelopes.
Having completed my secondary education and found myself deceptively good at sports and fascinated by the army, I secured a “cadetship”; essentially a military scholarship program for University. Next came a civil engineering degree at Bristol between 1984 and 86; which I unfortunately flunked. Thankfully; I was able to complete my studies at the MOD’s own university- Royal military college of science, just outside Swindon.”
MS “Am I right in thinking you took a bicycle tour of Morocco during this period?”
AV “Yes; it was a gap year thing; we saw it as being a lad’s holiday and an opportunity to meet girls, rather than a serious, structured adventure. People were always warning us off; usual tales of being robbed, ripped off etc; which of course didn’t happen.”
MS “Any particularly memorable bits, highs and lows?”
AV “One of our group had been an endurance rider in his childhood-seriously fit, trained fifty miles a day, so keeping pace with him on the seemingly endless climbs was quite a challenge. That said; we rode by the seat of our pants; literally. No specialist clothing, or technical kit.
After several weeks we were extremely tanned and very thin-we’d pretty much been living on bread and jam. (laughs fondly) When we’d got to Spain; we were seen as seriously desirable by the local women.
As for our lowest point; well; we were hammering down a particularly long descent and there was an elderly man with a heavily laden donkey by the roadside. Next thing we knew; we’d startled the donkey; it bucked and jettisoned its cargo of empty glass jars/bottles-shards of glass everywhere…We initially felt saddened and slightly ashamed-none of us wanted to cause the animal, or its owner distress. This quickly turned to fear when the man took chase, shouting and yelling behind us.”
MS “What, if anything did it teach you?”
AV “Frankly, I don’t think we had the maturity to learn anything from the experience; although we weren’t fretting about 4G, phones or social media. In fact, we had a camera and took about three shots - tops. I’ve still got them somewhere.”
MS “So then you returned to the army, what came next?”
AV “Well, despite public perception that the army’s an opportunity to see the world; you don’t really have any say in where and how you go about it; nonetheless I stayed put, passing out in 1989. Next; the Royal Army Educational corps, where I began cultivating a newfound pacifism, something I hid from my senior officers. It became increasingly obvious that I couldn’t remain an Army officer on ethical grounds. Net effect £6,000 and two years later, I was out and doing my teacher training."
MS “I get the impression teaching has been a recurrent theme, run in parallel with adventure/film making...”
AV “I spent four years between 1991 and 1995 teaching design technology and physics back at my old school in Mill Hill. Then along came “Mondo Enduro.”
MS “Your first round the world motorcycle trip-40,000 miles on 350cc dirt bikes and involving a crossing of the former soviet union...”
AV “Yes, although we’d paid a visit to the former soviet countries before, literally just after the empire had collapsed.”
The mention of crumbling Soviet infrastructure halts the interview for a moment as Michael and Austin bond over a shared fascination for the region and some would suggest; a strange mutual admiration of MZ motorcycles. After a few minutes’ detour, focus reverts to Mondo Enduro.
AV “Yes, Mondo was done in 440 days with zero support and skeleton support. Everyone involved were literally expedition virgins and to some extent, the only hi-tech thing about the whole trip, was that we captured the footage on broadcast quality hi-8 camcorders. These permitted documentary style film making and with nominal bulk-they’re about the size of a paperback book.”
MS “Was this the catalyst, the starting point of your film-making career? I noted you’d left teaching and worked as a freelance cameraman.”
AV ”I had always wanted to produce a series of documentaries; the problem being that many production company executives are very risk adverse; they want you to stick to a certain, risk adverse formula. Many didn’t get the idea, they’d ask me if it featured chefs; the concept of several men riding across the globe didn’t resonate with them at all.”
MS “Your next project was another documentary/reportage piece where you hitch-hiked across America, interviewing people in their cars.”
AV “You mean; Roadside USA; which I filmed with (name) in 1997. We set out with the intention of making a TV series and in many respects this was a precursor to “Reality TV” as we know it now. We were hitch-hiking across the States and pretty much lived, slept and died in the three suits we brought with us. If our motorcycle tours boiled down to a daily regime of petrol, food and beer, finding a dry cleaners every few days- as we entered a new town was paramount."
Another theme, heading out in the clothes they were stood in runs throughout his adventures but some footwear is more practical than others...
AV “Ah, I’d brought these boots with Cuban heels, which looked stunning but were awful for hopping over fences and similar antics. Obviously, they weren’t intended for walking long distances either.”
MS “I’m getting the sense in which this project also met with some distinct resistance from production companies...”
AV “Largely for the reasons outlined in our discussion of Mondo; although the equipment and image quality was sufficiently good and technology becoming more affordable, the digital age had yet to dawn; film-makers were very much beholden to production companies and to edit footage required access to an editing suite and costs of £450 per hour. Budgets of this kind were way beyond the means of ordinary people, however talented or frankly; otherwise.
Ultimately as luck would have it, some footage was spotted, by National Geographic, plucking me from obscurity and landing work as a freelance cameraman/filmmaker and I spent the next period thoroughly enjoying myself and learning what’s termed the grammar of television-telling narratives that work and entice producers and editors."
Technology and equipment are only as useful as the operator’s skill; I continued exploring this construct and Austin remained constructive and refreshingly candid.
MS “Cameras can either draw people’s curiosity or have them recoiling in horror. What to you are the most important factors in producing documentary/reportage films?”
AV “This kind of work is an incredibly intimate process. Trust; the confidence that you are not going to stitch someone up, portray them in an unflattering way is a fundamental barrier that needs dismantling.
Making the film, I was always struck by people’s candour and the things they would confide in us, when they own the space. In this context, I’m really talking about the relationships that develop during the course of a long drive. Then of course, people tend to feel far more relaxed and open if they believe they’re never going to see you again. All told, we travelled 12,000 miles and conducted 60 interviews.”
MS “Has the prevalence of smaller hand-held, digital equipment, though GO-Pro in particular made film-making easier?”
AV “I own a Go-Pro and like it in some contexts. They’re fine for short bursts of adrenaline type footage; filming yourself in other words. No use whatsoever for narrative film-making.
Yes, technology has made things more accessible to people but their poor audio quality and fixed focal length lenses cannot provide the quality demanded of feature length documentary work”. One of the things we look to teach people through the Adventure travel film festival is how to produce proper films. Technology has changed but the narrative-means of story-telling has not. If you want to see footage of huge, adrenaline fuelled jumps, look elsewhere, you won’t find it at my film festival.”
MS "There’s an old adage amongst tandem enthusiasts that says “If you can blossom on a tandem tour together, you’ve the makings of a long and happy marriage” and it’s not difficult to see the metaphor. What were your toughest times together, how did you get through them and how do you manage that delicate tightrope between personal and professional relationships?"
AV “There have been many challenges together and the sentiments described certainly resonate with us. One of the toughest times didn’t involve motorcycles at all. We’d bought a Dutch houseboat in Amsterdam and brought it back to the UK.
The thing you have to remember, this was our home - everything we had tied up it that. On the other hand, what better way to grow than sharing an intense adventure? To be honest, getting through the toughest times has involved me saying she was right all along!”
MS "The Crane cousins among others extoll the virtues of travelling light, taking the extreme measures of removing the housings from bic biros and drilling holes in hub cone spanners during their mid 80’s adventure “Journey to the centre of the Earth”. Do you fall into this category? What could we expect to find in your panniers and why?"
AV “Gear just gets in the way-longer distance trips on loose soil/sand, weight becomes a real issue and in these contexts; less is certainly more. On the Morocco bicycle trip, I took a folding mattress, blanket-no tools whatsoever. On the motorcycle tour, I took a “trail tool” multi tool, puncture repair kit, bivi bag. We’ve nothing against gear per se; the point we’re making is that it isn’t essential to remortgage the house to have a seriously compelling and perfectly safe adventure. All too often, this emphasis upon equipment presides over people actually doing stuff.”
MS “So tell us about the film festival, how did it come into being?”
AV “Well; it all began with DVDs of films being shared, word of mouth basically. This lead to screenings of obscure films on a river bank, Lois suggested we have a festival…Our first in 2011 was held in Devon and attracted and captivated 250 people, things grew from there, facebook and similar social media channels being fairly pivotal in getting the word out and the festival’s subsequent, progressive expansion. We wanted to show films people had never seen before, films that would blow people’s mind and maybe, inspire their own adventures.”
MS "What sort of audience demographic does it attract?"
AV “Interestingly enough, there isn’t a specific demographic; we’ve a massive range of people from all walks of life with one common theme-a phenomenal sense of curiosity and worldly outlook."
MS “So what’s in store for cycling audiences and specifically, Seven Day Cyclist’s readership?”
AV “Cycling and indeed other genres seem to have found themselves gravitating towards tribalism. As I said earlier; downhill mountain bikers looking for hours of from the saddle footage, or MAMILS (Middle aged men in Lycra) hungering for endurance racing, or similar celebration of cycling will be disappointed. Riders looking to explore the world, its people, share ideas and inspiration without any fixed ideas and an interest in reportage style film-making will get most from the experience. Bring your tent mind. "
MS “We came to hear of the event while chatting with Cycle Miles in the context of getting some lightweight touring trailers and related touring kit in for testing. The UK festival is being held in Mill Hill, London NW7 in August, where can curious folks find out more?”
AV “The most direct route is via our site, where they can also buy tickets http://www.adventuretravelfilmfestival.com/uk-festival/buy-tickets/
and we’ve also a facebook page https://www.facebook.com/Adventure-Travel-Film-Festival-127564957284077/
PUBLISHED JULY 2016