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Inside VanMoof

Why go back? A conversation with Creative Director Pascal Duval and Film Director Paul Geusebroek

Esrever ni kcuts teg t’nod. Wait – read that again, but backwards. Feel like you’re reversing into old habits? Our latest film calls on people everywhere to keep up the momentum of change – to not revert to dysfunctional mobility habits and instead ride on into a greener, happier future. We chatted to our Creative Director Pascal Duval and Amsterdam-based film director Paul Geusebroek to dig a little deeper.

Hey Pascal, can you tell us about the concept for the Reverse film? Where did the idea come from?

Pascal: Our mission at VanMoof was in a sense highlighted while everyone was locked up in their houses over the pandemic. Many cities became greener and cleaner due to the fact that there were fewer cars, little congestion, and less pollution. The starting point for this film was when we saw that people at this point in time are starting to go back. We wanted to do something with the insight that people are starting to travel again, returning to their daily commute, and climbing back into their cars. People are falling back into bad habits that aren’t necessarily seen by anyone as ‘bad’, but if everyone does it then entire cities will return to their high levels of congestion and all the negative things that come along with it like accidents and road rage. For me, that was the starting point for the idea.

What attracted you most about the concept of the film as a director, Paul?

Paul: I was drawn to it straight away because I thought the visual metaphor of reversing was so strikingly simple. Simple in a good way! I really look for concepts that aren’t too convoluted. I also saw a lot of cinematic potential: a lot of Pascal’s references were very cinematic and I immediately saw there was an opportunity for great, street-style photography. And of course, it’s for a good cause.

You’re well known for your atmospheric, cinematic films – a style that certainly carries through into this film. It has kind of an old school feel, right?

Paul: Yeah that’s kind of what we were going for! We didn’t want to make a flashy, hip sort of film – we wanted to make something a bit more traditional. We were trying to make sure it was solid cinematography without any nonsense.

Pascal: That’s true – the film is timeless. It’s set in a ‘time’ but you can’t really clearly say that that time is now, or even what city it’s set in. It’s in a kind of in-between world. Hopefully, when you watch it in five years' time it still has that same quality.

Paul: Exactly. The art direction was that we’re leaving an old world behind. We wanted it to feel like it’s an outdated world that we’re leaving in the past, along with that old-school idea of the daily grind.

The music really adds to that sense of timelessness. How did you come to settle on that sound?

Paul: We didn’t want dystopian sounds but the exact opposite to create an irony and a contrast between what you see and what you hear. The texture of it as a vintage recording gives the shots a lot of depth. On set we played that track a lot during playback, and that set the mood and the pace of the shots for us. The shots and the music align really well for that reason.

“We want to hold a mirror up to the world. We didn’t want to call anyone out for their behavior: you should be able to feel the message of the film more rather than it being accusatory.”

What was it like to produce the film? What was the energy like on set?

Paul: We had to just completely own that cross-section. One of the obstacles was getting it done within only two shoot days. A lot of the time we were shooting three shots at the same time with three different monitors. But because it went so well, it was great fun. The crew were great, and when you get into a flow it gives you such adrenaline and you can really bring the film to its full potential.

The film shows people reversing in time – why do you want to play on the idea of going backwards at this particular moment?

Pascal: It really has to do with the cultural zeitgeist. At the moment with wildfires and flash floods, our environmental crisis has been made pretty clear. But for a second there as societies were able to open up, it was like we almost forgot that we were in this dire situation. The film plays with those two ideas – it’s about not going back to the pre-pandemic world, and also about going forward and being more aware that we have to change. We want to hold a mirror up to the world. We didn’t want to call anyone out for their behavior: you should be able to feel the message of the film more rather than it being accusatory.

So do you see the film as a message to individuals, or a call to action for city legislators and those with the power to make a change? Or both?

Pascal: People have to do it together in the end – change has to come out of society. In London for example, the space created for bikes and pedestrians over the pandemic was just taken over again by cars because there are just so many of them. I think governments and companies certainly have a responsibility to promote the right message.

"People have to do it together in the end – change has to come out of society."

What do you hope people will take away from the film?

Paul: The ending revealing the rider and the shot just after – that’s a breath of fresh air. It’s calm and the music kind of comes into sync and finally fits the shot. It’s calmer in the street, there are birds chirping in the sound design. That was my aim: that the end of the film feels like a breath of fresh air. The bicycle stands for not just the environment, but also for escaping the rut that people are in – for cycling out of the nine to five grind. It stands for freedom in the film: everyone is stuck, but this person is just breezing through.

During the pandemic, e-bike sales boomed and there was a new kind of enthusiasm for people-centric cities. There was a sense that this crisis would lead us to change our ways. But now we’re actually seeing an increase in car sales and usage again as the world opens up. What’s that about?

Paul: I’m no economist, but I think that there’s a big wave of consumption that’s happening right now. So maybe now isn’t the best time to measure it because people are just consuming on such a mass scale at the moment. They’ve been stuck in their houses and now they wanna live. So that might be one reason. It’s troubling obviously, and it’s something that needs to be run by the government. I'm of the conviction that that’s really where you make a difference, at a government level. Obviously you can make a difference as individual people, as civilians that forces a government to do things, but ultimately that’s where big change should come from.

Pascal: I think it’s for comfort. In Holland they say “wat de boer niet kent, dat vreet hij niet,” or “what the farmer doesn’t know he doesn’t eat.” It’s a bit like that. It shows that even though the whole world had to change their routines, people easily revert to old habits. But if you can change car culture; if you can change peoples’ habits – that is so powerful. And so interesting. Hopefully we’ve made a strong, thought-provoking, and poetic piece that can spark off more conversation around this topic.

Returning to the dysfunctional status-quo of congestion, pollution, and road rage is not the way forward. Riding bikes, on the other hand, is the breath of fresh air that both our environment and city-dwellers desperately need. Don’t get stuck in reverse. The future is forwards.

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