Filmmaker Liz Canning cycled everywhere until she had twins in 2008. Hauling babies via car was not only ‘unsustainable’, but it took the freedom and adventure out of life; and Liz felt trapped. She Googled “family bike” and uncovered a global movement of people replacing cars with cargo bikes. Liz set out to learn more and MOTHERLOAD was born.
MOTHERLOAD is a crowdsourced documentary about a new mother’s quest to understand the increasing isolation and disconnection of the digital age, its planetary impact, and how cargo bikes could be an antidote.
Liz’s work has screened internationally – winning awards including a Sundance Special Jury Prize (American Blackout – editor/producer). After graduating from Brown University in Semiotics, Liz worked at San Francisco’s Artists Television Access and Film Arts Foundation while making films. Her award-winning Handmirror/Brushset Included screened internationally, on PBS and at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC (distributed by Art Com).
Since 2000, Liz has worked as a professional filmmaker focused on editing and animation for documentaries. Girls Rock! secured theatrical distribution and featured five animated sequences created by Liz and to demonstrate the cultural forces affecting young girls.
I got into a chat with Liz Canning to know more about her documentary and cycling adventures.
How difficult it was to revive your romance with cycling after becoming a parent of two kids?
For me the heartbreak happened when I was unable to continue cycling everyday, everywhere, because of my kids. We did our best with the bike trailer, but they hated being stuffed back there and it wasn’t fun for me either. I’m glad it works for some people, but for me it felt like my kids were luggage I was dragging around town. There was a brief period when I gave up and started driving, which made me CRAZY! With the discovery of the cargo bike and purchase of our very own bakfiets, Stormy and Rocko became my co-pilots and everyday errands became mini-adventures!
What made you choose a cargo bicycle when you had other alternatives?
I was not happy using a car. Driving not only emits carbon and occupies way too much public space, but it deprives us of the sensory experiences that bond us to our communities and the natural world – even our own bodies. Despite what the high-speed, tech-driven culture tells us, our hunter-gatherer DNA has hardwired us to NEED to explore the physical world with our bodies, and to connect with nature and each other. When we ignore these needs we get depressed and anxious. I learned this the hard way – by spending many years being depressed and anxious. When I discovered I could pedal myself from San Francisco, up and around Mount Tamalpais, and back, I think I rode so many miles that I rewired my brain! The roads on that ride offer majestic Redwood Trees, an Alpine Lake, and the Pacific Ocean! Often the fog sits below the ridge of Mt Tam, and riding in the sun along the top you are looking down at what look like clouds – heaven!
Women cycling with children face a backlash and there was some noise in the past to ban bakfiets. How did you cope with such criticism?
I myself have not experienced too much aggressive backlash. (We live in the town where the mountain bike was invented. 🙂 ) A woman once rolled her window down in the middle of traffic to tell me I was endangering my children. I’m not sure I offered a great comeback. The thing is, change makes people nervous. And, as is said in the film, people are much more willing to vocally question the choices of mothers than those of fathers. A mother carrying kids on a bike is a very powerful symbol! She is saying “I believe that this choice is not only safe, but important enough that I am willing to stand out, in public space, and endure whatever judgements come at me.” She is demonstrating her physical strength while inviting like-minded parents to join her. She is suggesting that there is another way. And, with her inevitably smiling, singing passengers she is suggesting that perhaps this new way is much, much better than the status quo.
SO, we need lots and lots more moms on cargo bikes!!!
What motivated you to create a crowd sourced documentary around cargo bikes and how was the initial response?
When I googled “carry kids on bike,” I discovered a palpable online buzz around cargo bikes: people were blogging, chatting, tweeting and You-Tubing about how these bikes had transformed their lives. It seemed that once they experienced this lifestyle, they couldn’t help but try to tell the world about it. I immediately wanted to capture this story on film, but, at the time, I had 2 babies to care for and was thoroughly sleep-deprived and exhausted. I had a hunch: maybe the fanatic cargo bike evangelists I’d befriended could help me do this? Maybe this collaborative effort would actually become an essential part of the story?
From the moment I posted the original 2011 trailer explaining the concept and announcing a call for submissions, I was overwhelmed with videos, photos and emails. Ever since then, I’ve been simply playing catch up. And now I am hanging on for dear life as the requests for screenings just keep coming in. Communities are embracing the film by collaborating on their own MOTHERLOAD events, completely with DIY promo videos, bike-canvassing local neighborhoods, panel discussions with local cargo bike moms – you name it!
‘MOTHERLOAD’ is an apt title of your documentary and well connected with your personal life. How it came into being and whom do you credit for it?
At a certain point I realized the old title, Less Car<More Go, only sounds clever if you know what a cargo bike is. More than anything I wanted this film to reach beyond the bike world. I had to figure out what was transcendent and universal about this story. I thought a lot about WHY the experience is so powerful. One reason is that I believe we know, in our bones, that continuing to live as we have (driving, over consuming, polluting) is killing the planet. We carry this burden, consciously or not, everyday, and it is stressful. This is the MOTHERLOAD, the burden of caring for Mother Earth. And most of the commonly suggested ways for individuals to slow climate change are ineffective and/or unexciting compromises (recycling, eating less meat, composting, cloth diapers). But riding a cargo bike? NO compromise there! In fact there are infinite side benefits!
Of course I also thought about how the bicycle saved me – first as a former anorexic who had to learn to love her own body— and then again as an overwhelmed mom who desperately needed a sense of adventure and freedom in her life again. Then I heard the same story from mother after mother after mother.
And finally, the word motherload means the most plentiful vein of gold or silver ore (“We hit the motherlode!”). It also refers to a jackpot, a treasure of great value or abundance. This is what I saw in my discovery of the cargo bike. This was an alternative way of living that could enrich every aspect of your life, while simultaneously convincing others around you to make this choice, and eventually it could change your community, other communities, the world.
During the course of crowd sourcing content for this documentary, what were your key observations and learnings as you collaborated with the international community of cargo bike lovers?
- Cargo bikes revolutionize the parenting experience, largely by creating much happier parents, who, naturally, do a much better job with their kids!
- Moms are the most vocal and expressive about this experience.
- NOTHING tells you more about the cargo bike experience than those smiling faces and giggles.
From your cycling journey, what suggestions you have for parents who haven’t explored cycling yet or are afraid to do so?
PLEASE, do not pass up this opportunity for your family. Find somebody in your community who is doing it. Borrow a great family bicycle and go on a ride – with a guide. Everyday bicyclists know the “bike way” – the safest, most pleasant way to travel around your town. These paths and roads are often invisible/unknown to drivers, who wrongly assume that on a bike they’d be forced to ride on the busy roads driven by most people. Go on a few rides, with your kids. Try an electric motor! Rent a cargo bike for a week if you can. You will fall in love, you will buy your own, and you will have zero regrets. 🙂
How do you see the role of cargo bikes in community building especially when people are increasingly finding themselves isolated in a digitally connected world?
As Dave Cohen shows us in the film: in a car you are unrecognizable/unreachable to those around you. With your cargo bike, especially when carrying children, you will inspire smiles and waves and even exclamations of “Cool bike!,” or “Way to go!” or “I want one!”. You can easily stop to make new friends or hug old ones. Your children will experience all the smells, textures, temperatures and ins and outs of their neighborhood. They will ask questions and make observations they NEVER would make from a car. It is simply a beautiful thing to do and I miss it! (Mine are almost 12 and ride their own bikes.)
From a cyclist to a film maker, what is Liz Canning aiming to achieve next?
I would like to get back on my road bike and go up Mt Tam and all over Marin once again. I still ride around town of course, but when the kids were little I became addicted to swimming because it made me feel great (more refreshed and less tired somehow than cycling, even though I always swam 2 miles+), and it took MUCH less time than the 2-5 hour bike rides I was used to. But I miss those long bike rides!
I am working on a new film idea that I’m very excited about. I am not quite ready to share the concept, but soon. I can say that I will be calling on my community again, for crowdsourcing and crowdfunding. Its going to be GREAT!
How can one book a screening of MOTHERLOAD?
Please go to http://motherloadmovie.com/ and check out all the info on the “HOST A SCREENING” page. Email your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
We would LOVE to help you create an exciting MOTHERLOAD event!
Ways to connect with Liz Canning:
facebook: Liz Canning
linked in: Liz Canning
youtube: Liz Canning
Author: Vijay Malhotra, Mumbai