Sports often are the best diplomacy, from ping pong in 1971 opening a long-closed door between the United States and China, to more recently, the invitation to North Korea to join the World Cup soccer games. Add to that list: mountain biking in Iran.
Iran is one of the most isolated countries in the world. Secretary of State John Kerry has spent the past two weeks in white-knuckle negotiations over Iran's nuclear power capacities. There is a great deal of tension and lingering suspicion between Iran and nearly every other country.
But a small band of intrepid mountain bikers presents a very different perspective on the country, and on Thursday, July 16, Mountain Biking Out of the Box will screen at McMenamins. That 49-minute film will be shown as part of the increasingly impressive Central Oregon Trail Alliance (COTA) movie series, a monthly presentation of bike-themed documentaries.
This screening in Bend—6,923 miles from Tehran—came about in the most 21st century of ways: by online research (read: Google), email outreach, and virtual connections. The two German filmmakers (and mountain bikers themselves) who produced the movie reached out to Bend Bicycle Film Festival (BBFF), asking to screen their film. Because the film was much longer than entries for BBFF—not to mention, hardly local, which is one of the requirements for entries—the festival's organizer referred the film to Henry Abel, who works for Pine Mountain Sports and also organizes COTA's Movie Night.
Easy as that: No travel visas required, no diplomatic negotiations; the film is a remarkable glimpse into a country that has been so vilified that according to a 2013 BBC poll, 95 percent of Americans have a negative view of Iran.
"For most of us, this country stands for the axis of evil, religious fundamentalists, and the fear of the nuclear program," explains Gregor Mahringer on the filmmaker's website. Mahringer is one of the two filmmakers, and a mountain biker from Munich, Germany. He goes on, "there is much more; for example, a fast developing gravity mountain bike scene that is worth discovering."
Two years ago, Mahringer was hired to create an extreme sport web series.
"My idea was to go beyond the mainstream and give an insight into the off the wall mountain bike scene of the Asian continent," he says. "Unfortunately, the project ended up in the drawer. Nevertheless, I already got in contact with some very passionate riders, and the Iranian guys were the most ambitious ones."
Those connections—and that intrigue about a largely disconnected mountain biking scene—led Mahringer to begin talking up the potential for a documentary.
"One evening after a few beers we just booked flights," he explains.
The filmmakers found a central character in Hossein Zanjanian, an internationally ranked downhill rider, and a stunning backdrop in the mountain ranges just north from Tehran.
The film also examines some of the tensions—like the immense cultural status of the automobile in Iran, which further diminishes any respect for bicycles in the country; and the acute difficult of finding bikes and parts due to import sanctions on the country.
Mountain Biking Out of the Box – Iran
9 pm, Thursday, July 16
McMenamins' Old St. Francis, 700 NW Bond St.