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Review: Dark Rider


- Belgian documentary-maker Eva Küpper follows in the extraordinary wake of a man attempting to beat the world speed record held by a blind motorbike rider

Review: Dark Rider

"I opened the blind, I looked outside, and I could feel the heat and the sun on my face. I realised I couldn’t see anything, that I’d become completely blind." At 37 years of age, Australian national Ben Felten lost his sight on account of a degenerative eye disease. Yet, 14 years later, here he is, back in the saddle at Speed Week, shrouded in the  brilliant white of the 160km-long Lake Gairdner and on the start line of a marked track across this salty expanse (whose crust is no less than one metre thick), all with a view to beating the world speed record held by a blind motorcycle rider (he needs to go faster than 265.33 km/h). Meet the staggering hero of Dark Rider, the second feature film by Belgian documentary-maker Eva Küpper (who triumphed at the IDFA thanks to What's in a Name), which was screened in the Hauteur section of the 13th Les Arcs Film Festival having previously appeared in the Work in Progress line-up in 2019.

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But how can a blind man drive at full throttle, I hear you ask? Clearly, he can’t do it alone. Indeed, Ben will be relying on a first-rate guide in the form of fellow Australian Kevin Magee (Magoo to his friends but also known as "the Hurricane of Horsham"), a former celebrity on the professional Grand Prix circuit who follows Ben on his motorbike, offering up basic but crucial radio communications ("left", "right") to ensure Ben stays on the 12-mile track. Theirs is a relationship of absolute trust ("Magee has a huge responsibility as a navigator because someone else’s life depends on him") which nonetheless involves a bit of guesswork, adjustment and uncertainty, not to mention clarification over the details involved in this motor sport, delivered by the little squad who are supporting Ben in his extraordinary challenge. All of this takes place under the gaze of the many speed fans from all corners of the globe who come together each and every year for Speedweek ("go fast or go home"), which is organised by the DLRA (Dry Lakes Racers Australia)  under the aegis of the highly eccentric (yet rigorous) marshal ("I’ve seen it all over the years, from 50 cm3 motors to the faster tractor you could imagine"): "the Animal".

Over and above the sports-based suspense which accompanies Ben’s (various) record-breaking attempt(s) and the high level of empathy encouraged in viewers, who quite naturally want to see him succeed and disability triumph against impossible or, at best, incredibly dangerous odds, Dark Rider sketches a humanist portrait composed of multiple entry levels which are deftly interposed (according to the various sequences) within the guiding line of the story (beating the world record). We witness the strong, male friendship between Ben and Magee, Ben’s return in the company of his elderly mother or in a meeting with children, discussing the various stages of his retinitis pigmentosa (which first appeared when he was just 15 years old) and his reaction to the diagnosis ("I was in denial until I was about 22 years old", "I spiralled into a deep depression"), a road trip and a "pilgrimage" to Horsham looking back on the traces and memories of Magee’s late mother, a flashback to the dramatic fall which left a mark on the champion’s career, and the two protagonists’ encounter with young, 13-year-old Jed, a teen who also stands to lose his sight later in life… These many elements come together to form an endearing and edifying documentary (though one which doesn’t tell the whole story) about a man who has blown the barriers of disability to smithereens, borrowing others’ eyes where he needs to, and proving that when he wants to do something, he can go ahead and do it.

Dark Rider is produced by Belgium’s Serendipity Films (who are also steering international sales) in co-production with fellow Belgian firms Clin d'Oeil Films and RTBF, alongside Dutch outfit Volya Films.

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(Translated from French)

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