Words & interview

Henry Boon

Inside the grassroots biking movement at the heart of If The Streets Were On Fire

Alice Russell's new documentary captures the work of Bikestormz, a passionate community of cyclists aiming to promote community among some of the capital's most disenfranchised kids.

In 2017, Alice Russell was attending Critical Mass, a London-wide movement of cyclists who reclaim the streets for mass rides of freedom and community. A passionate cyclist, she had been attending for years but this year something was different. “I started to notice on one of them that there were loads more kids wheelieing than I’d ever seen before. I just fell in love with them. They were so raw and rowdy and wild and beautiful and spectacular.” 

These kids led Russell to discover Bikestormz, their own movement of group rides – one decidedly wilder, younger, and more expressive. Bikestormz also holds a more focused goal: to give young people from disadvantaged backgrounds an alternative to crime, through promoting community in bike riding. Or as they put it: “Bikes up, knives down”. This is the focus of Russell’s debut feature-length documentary If The Streets Were On Fire. 

Russell’s documentary is remarkably warm and hopeful. Beautifully shot scenes of graceful, daring riders capture carefree moments of freedom on otherwise troubled faces. It’s impossible not to fall in love with its cheeky, bold, inspiring cast of riders. This is essential, as the film seeks to make a vital perception shift.

Streets most powerful moments come from Mac Ferrari, a sort of father figure to the Bikestormz community, as he wrestles with local councils and the police to simply find a space where young people, pushed to their limits by austerity, can be free and safe. He’s a selfless, poetic and instantly likeable leader, but his frustration is palpable as he comes up against resistance on all sides. The rides in the neutral ground of central London are often swiftly shut down by police, ignorant of their importance. Meanwhile, no attempt is made to understand why the spaces offered to Mac – in problematic postcodes on the very outskirts of London – to organise uninterrupted rides are unworkable. To cap things off the public often see these groups as, at best, a nuisance and, at worst, threatening, dangerous and – that most loaded of words – ‘antisocial’. 

Around the time Russell first started trying to film Bikestormz they’d had some negative press that missed the point and so were wary of the media. Speaking to young riders, she was repeatedly pointed towards Mac – if it was cool with him, then everybody would be on board. She first met Mac in his bike shop in Hackney, a free hub for kids who otherwise couldn’t afford their first set of wheels, or to get their existing ones repaired. “He was in such a poetic mood,” she remembers, “He said, ‘In life, you have to put kids on a track. If you don’t put them on a track, then they’re walking on the gravel, and you can’t complain when the gravel gets kicked up in your face.’” She was hooked. “He just basically saw all these kids who had been abandoned by the world and by society and knew that they needed an outlet, needed some guidance, needed some hope. The bike became the vehicle through which he could do that.” 

The film’s other main focal point is a little more surprising. Rather than zeroing in on one of the many young riders, Russel follows an older participant, Miles. Miles’ younger days are an example of what happens when something like Bikestormz isn’t around. Now a family man who just wants to be a good father and ride bikes, his dark past keeps catching up to him. He shows not just where these kids would otherwise be headed, but how difficult it is to leave that life behind once it has a hold on you. His story injects a fear and paranoia into the film that is crucial in telling the story of any one of the young riders who zip across the frame – a feeling that rules their lives and that for many, Bikestormz holds at bay. 

It’s an astute choice and one that started by chance. Russell had seen Miles around, but he was always quiet and withdrawn. One day she was hanging with a group of riders after filming was halted. “Miles just started talking, and Miles didn’t stop talking,” she remembers fondly, “Miles has never been asked. What does he think? What does he feel? I can’t put words in his mouth but for the first time I think he felt empowered to have an opinion, because maybe before he didn’t think that his thoughts mattered.” Miles is the yin to Mac’s (justifiably) more guarded yang. He opens his whole life up to Russell and lays bare everything that is at stake for a movement that the police at one point say “has nothing to do with knife crime”. 

An early draft of Streets featured more root causes, more politics, and more statistics. On screening it for friends though Russell realised that took away the crucial humanity that makes the final cut so moving. A few people had pointed her in the direction of Xanna Ward Dixon – editor on Poly Styrene: I Am Cliché – and the pair ended up working together on a new cut. “She has an incredible skill for making you feel stuff and it just felt like the thing that was missing,” Russell says. “You need the humanity. These young people would just be like, ‘No one’s ever asked me what I think before. No one cares about us. No one pays any attention to us.” The final cut asks just this. With Mac and Miles as the main focus, the film’s true heart lies in the small moments with the young riders, through the snippets of playful conversation or the tough facades that are clearly paper thin. These moments make the statistics that hit at the end all the more powerful.

There were plenty of learning curves like this for Russell along the way. When she started making If the Streets Were on Fire, she had made one short film and had a little experience in broadcast documentaries, but was totally self-taught. “I just had a strong intuitive sense. You know, these people are amazing. I absolutely want to hear them.” She followed this intuition throughout – just her and a camera. Everything is shot close-up and, in their midst, Russell’s camera places you in the eyes of the participants. 

There’s really no crew beyond that. For the more breakneck scenes of rides and stunts, Russell worked alongside cinematographer Ruben Woodin Dechamps, whom she met on Spareroom. They began working together after she raved about a scene in The Reason I Jump one day in their shared kitchen, not realising the gorgeous shots she was praising were his. “I strapped him into the front of a cargo bike,” she says, “And he just had the best day, just mad guerrilla-style filming – really dangerous – but he’s just one of those people that’s up for that kind of thrill.” 

Since the making of the film, Bikestormz has continued to grow and is organised a little more officially these days, but its biggest battle still lies in changing the public perception of why it matters. The streets are still on fire, but not everybody can see the flames. Russell’s film hopes to make them burn a little brighter.

If the Streets Were on Fire – Storyville will air at 10pm on Tuesday 3rd October on BBC Four and iPlayer.

Published 28 Sep 2023

Tags: Alice Russell Bikestormz

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