It astounds me when people know what they’re put on Earth to do, even if they have fears or reservations about it. Which is why I'm inspired by I'm Never Afraid!'s hero, Mack "the Motor Midget" Bouwense. In the 20-minute documentary, we watch the eight-year-old overcome incredible health and personal obstacles in the pursuit of his dream to become a motocross racer.
The short takes place over the six days leading up to his first motocross race since breaking his femur. During the race, Mack witnesses his friend die on the track. Shot in the Netherlands in lush 16-mm film with a surreal Ennio Morricone-esque soundtrack, I'm Never Afraid! paints an intimate portrait of a boy surrounded by death but filled with an iron will to win. I'm Never Afraid! has won six international awards, including the Kinderkast Jury Prize at 25th Cinekid and a Golden Gate Award at the 52nd San Francisco International Film Festival. Check out I'm Never Afraid! below if you’ve ever been scared shitless about something in life, but persevered anyway.
I'm Never Afraid!'s director, Willem Baptist, graduated from Willem de Kooning Academy, Rotterdam, in 2009. In addition to the short above, he also directed the dramatic short DONNIE. His work has been shown at numerous international film festivals such as IDFA, Rotterdam, BFI London, Slamdance, Sheffield Doc/Fest, and many more. He is currently filming a documentary about wild boars in the Netherlands and writing a feature-film drama. I was so captivated by Willem's documentary about Mack, I reached out to him for a chat to find out more about the short.
VICE: Mack is such a unique character. How did you find him?
Willem Baptist: For this film, I was inspired by the fears I had when I was growing up. I was afraid of a lot of things—big crowds, waterslides, you name it. So I started to look for children who seemed very tough because I was interested in seeing if I could uncover some fears they might have. It was my first time at a motocross track when I met Mack. It was a rainy day, and I saw this very tiny boy covered in mud head to toe. He was angry and kicking the door of his family's motor home. He was upset because they canceled the competition for the kids due to the holes in the track caused by the rainfall. Mack insisted it was his right to join the grown-up competition, instead. I asked if he wasn't afraid to get caught up between the wheels of the big bikes. He answered with a determination I had never seen in a kid his age: "I'm not afraid!" I knew then that I had found the right boy for my film.
How long did you film him and his family?
I spent six months getting to know him very well. Then when I was ready to shoot, he broke his leg during a race, and a friend of his died on the track. Those events changed him a lot. Gone was his natural self-esteem, and beneath the cracks I could see a more vulnerable version of him. This changed the way I approached the film. Only three months after his accident we shot the short in six and a half days nonstop using 17 rolls of film. When you see him riding his bike in the film, it's literally his first time since the accident.
What was the process like working with such a young subject?
In documentaries, I tend to treat children more as adults and grown-ups like bigger children, but it depends on the subject. In the case of Mack, it was more about creating the right environment. I choose a young all-guys team to shoot with so Mack would feel he was one of the guys and try to prove himself more. But for me, the most challenging thing was telling the story in an intimate way versus the fact that Mack was eight years old. At that age, it is hard to reflect on one's own thoughts and actions.
What is Mack up to these days?
After the film aired, Mack gained a lot of attention from the media in the Netherlands, which was a little crazy for him. Mack continues to race motorcycles.
We'll keep a look out for him. Thanks, Willem!
Jeffrey Bowers is a tall mustached guy from Ohio who's seen too many weird movies. He currently lives in Brooklyn, working as an art and film curator. He is a programmer at the Hamptons International Film Festival and screens for the Tribeca Film Festival. He also self-publishes a super fancy mixed-media art serial called PRISM index.
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