For more than 100 years we’ve been riding bikes and going to the movies. In this new dandy series we examine how two of the world’s most noted pastimes intersect. When and how have two wheels been caught on film? Over the next six months I’ll be examining cycling in films. It’s one part film review and one part bike nerd exploration. From coming of age nostalgia, to surreal escapism, to film noir and everything in between, here is the sixth story in the series
The Ovas - Image courtesy of Ovarian Psycos
Cycling is the medium and the Ovarian Psycos message is a world free of violence against women.
Story by Cayley James
This month I want to take a look at a documentary film that champions community and explores the concept of escape and liberation. Many of the films I’ve written about for this Bikes on Reels series have dealt with these themes. But this one is different. Feminism, cycling, and rider’s relationships with cities have always been at the heart of dandyhorse, and Ovarian Psycos scores top points in each one of these categories.
I saw Ovarian Psycos (2016) at Hot Docs last year and left the cinema with my brain buzzing. The documentary about a women of colour cycling collective is the inspiration behind the Bikes on Reels series. The women at the heart of the movie speak to everything I love about cycling. Founder, Xela de la X says: “I started taking my bike to work, and I remember being able to navigate through the traffic with ease. I had never felt that kind of freedom before then. At that moment, I wanted to share this with other women. ”
The Ovarian Psycos Bicycle Brigade (don’t call them a gang) was founded in 2010 by a group of women seeking solidarity and sisterhood in East Los Angeles. The group’s creation was a response to violence, abuse, and stereotypes against women of color, the “Ovas” have made it their mission to reclaim their neighborhoods, create safer streets, and safe spaces for women on the Eastside. “I understand that as an at-risk youth, now an adult, I’m an at-risk adult” says co-founder Xela, “That doesn’t go away, you know? So where are the spaces for us?” The Ovas are trying to redefine preconceived notions of Latina identity, and they unabashedly embrace the strength of the women at the heart of their community; thus challenging the male-ness of the cycling world. As their website attests: “Our political views are feminist ideals with indigena understanding and an urban/hood mentality.”
Los Angeles is synonymous with car culture. Its wide boulevards, and disparate neighbourhoods connected by freeway arteries are not conducive to the pedestrian or the pedaller. Cycling activism can also be problematically homogenous in North America. Access and education are two things that aren’t readily available in underserved communities. To break these intimidating barriers down, the Ovas hold monthly Luna Rides, and a Clitoral Mass (instead of Critical Mass) that cater to women, women indetifying and non-binary folks. They faced their fair share of naysayers despite, or because of, their tenacity. But with the rising popularity of their group rides, drawing people from across the LA area, the Ovas have touched a nerve outside of their immediate community.
East LA was the epicentre of the Chicano/a Civil Rights movement in the 1960s and 1970s. The filmmakers situate the Ovas within the context and history of the Chicana struggle to include feminist issues on the agenda. The radical activities of the group are not the singular focus of the film though. Documentary, like any other storytelling medium, needs characters, and filmmakers Kate Trumbull-LaValle and Joanna Sokolowski focus on three central women; co-founders Xela and Andi Xoch, and new recruit Evie.
The film’s dramatic tension is found in the search for the precarious balance of self care of these three women. Founder Xela, an LA native raised by Mexican immigrants is an uncompromising outreach powerhouse. She is an MC, a counsellor and educator for at-risk youth -- and a single mother. At one point in the film she decides to walk away from the Ovas, a decision that shocks and puts the future of the brigade in question. Co-founder Andi, born in Mexico City and raised in LA, is an artist. Following Xela’s decision to leave the group she struggles to understand her place in its precarious future. While Evie, the 21-year-old newbie, has one of the most satisfying archs you can find in a documentary. After joining the Psycos she transforms into a strong, articulate cycling champion before our eyes. Despite these positive changes, she and her mother struggle to see eye to eye. Her mother, Maria Isabel, fled El Salvador during its civil war as a refugee and isn’t shy about voicing her hesitations about Evie’s interest in the night-riding bike brigade of activists.
The filmmakers enter the lives of their subjects with a feather-light touch. They unpack issues of familial abuse, trauma and the rigours of being new immigrants in California, but hardly let these pasts define the women they are today. Instead, we see that their backgrounds provide the fodder that propels them to create a community they need for themselves.
Cycling is the activity that empowers and sustains them. In the same way that food security and public art projects have rallied underserved communities for decades, cycling can achieve that same unity. The film is an excellent tool for young organizers in exploring how cycling can be used as a tool to champion more than just health and fitness. And, it’s a friendly reminder that cycling activism is more than just urban planning and bike lanes. Cycling is the medium and their message is a world free of violence against women, safe streets and equal opportunity. Their ethos, and ultimately the film, is a resounding battle cry for old school methods of community organizing.
If you want to learn more about the film and where you can see it check out their website: http://www.ovarianpsycosdocumentary.com/
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