Meet the Dirt Biker Who Made a Doco on Australia's Gnarliest Desert Race

"The race is like our religion: something we can't just shake off, passed down through the generations."
June 15, 2018, 7:58am

Every year over the Queen's Birthday Weekend a mass of dirt bikes, cars, buggies, and quads takes off into the desert outside Alice Springs. They then spend the next three days powering through some of the most inhospitable land on the continent, finally arriving at a tiny community by the Finke River. It's a race that's famous for accidents, breakdowns, and endurance. And now a 23-year-old film maker from Alice Springs has distilled the race into a film.


Finke: There and Back premiers at Sydney Film Festival Saturday night (June 16). We caught up with its dirt bike-loving director to talk passion, crashes, and the logistics of capturing a race in the desert.

VICE: Hey Dylan, I understand a lot of your inspiration behind this film came from your own experience riding motorcycles. Could you tell us about your love?
Dylan River: My father put me on a motorbike when I was four. He followed behind me holding the rear fender so I could stay upright until I was comfortable, then he let go and I was off. But I love that feeling of escapism. It’s that we are all looking for in life, the stress and worry disappears and then it's just you, the bike, and the road forward. How do you negotiate the thrill and the danger?
Well the only time I don't think about the dangers, ironically, are the times I'm on a bike. Do you remember the first time you rode up to the Finke river?
The first time I experienced Finke was when I was 12 years old. My father was competing for the first time. The excitement of waiting for the first bike to cross the finke river after 230 kilometers through the desert was like nothing I'd ever experienced. The riders who competed in the race were like superheroes. I was addicted from then.

What inspired you to document the Finke Desert race?
It was on my third attempt in 2011 I had a big crash and got airlifted back to Alice Springs. The following year I had another crash and found myself in a St. John's ambulance all over again. And it was around that point that the idea of making a film about the Finke developed. I just kept wondering, why do we all keep doing this race? Think of the most beautiful thing you've seen a bike do, what pops into your head?
When you think about riding motorbikes through the desert everything happens in slow motion. It's sunset, the bird are out, it's a beautiful thing. There is this time when the rider and bike become one. Every nuance of movement becomes effortless with the provision of clockwork. In a metaphorical way the central Australian desert is like a god. This almighty force that looms over every rider. The race is like our religion, something we can't just shake off and is passed down through generations. In the same way the desert dictates the race, the documentary format forces the characters to dictate the stories, was that a struggle?
Documenting this race was a race in itself. Easily the most challenging thing I have done in my life. The logistical complications of trying to capture a multi character feature film in essentially a weekend was stressful to say the least. At the end of the day we did as much prep as we could and the rest was up to fate. To capture the two day 230km track and our characters we had twenty camera men and woman on the ground and three helicopters in the air. It's was epic! At the end of race weekend we were left with 300 hours of footage. Something I still can't get my head around. It took our editors close to six months to get the film into what it is today. The characters really dictated what the story is and unfortunately we have had to lose a lot of amazing moments along the way for the better of the story we have told. Now the film is complete I decided to go back and race the Finke one last time. It felt like the right time after a few years away from racing. I got a new bike, did a lot of training and practicing down the track to prepare for my last attempt. All my friends and family wished me luck, most of which ended with "be safe" or "don't hurt yourself" some even added "don't die".

I started the race and charged through some of the worst dust I have seen. I got through my first fuel stop at the 80km mark and moved into 20th. The next eighty kilometres I rode in clean air slowly picking off a few more riders and feeling Great. All of a sudden at the 153 km mark I miss-judged a rough section and the bike put me on my head. Wack! I was on the ground for another year. I got up and tried to lift my bike. I thought: "I'm alive I can keep going". But my shoulder dropped (broken collarbone) damn! The disappointment is hard to explain, once again the desert said no to my Finke attempt.

'Finke: There and Back' screens at Sydney Film Festival this Saturday. You can get tickets here