The Biking Viking’s bike doesn’t look like much. Stashed in a corner of the garage and stripped of its road accoutrements, the 12-year-old Cannondale that’s racked up thousands upon thousands of miles beneath environmental documentary filmmaker Gene Bernofsky, aka The Biking Viking, is battered and rusted. It’s like coming across Superman’s cape folded in a sock drawer.
The bike has become just as much a part of the filmmaker’s identity as his films. When Bernofsky decides to take on an environmental cause and document it with his camera, he packs his gear onto the Cannondale and pedals alone to his filming location—Sheridan, Wyo., in the case of Gassing the Big Sky, which debuts at the Crystal Theatre next week. There’s no script, no crew, one digital camera, one tripod, whatever personal items he needs for the trip and the bike. It’s grassroots filmmaking at its most barebones.
“It’s totally nonthreatening for The Biking Viking to arrive as this old man on a bike,” says Bernofsky, who sometimes refers to his alter ego in the third person. “By the time I’m there, I’m out of the rat race. I’m immersed in the air and the mountains. I’m refreshed, and my thoughts are directed entirely to the subject.”
The subject of his films is usually big business threatening the environment. Bernofsky has made over 40 documentaries throughout his life, but for the last 18 years he’s shot environmental advocacy movies with a guerilla mentality. His limited funding (approximately $500 a film) comes from a smattering of small foundations and distribution is focused on the leaders who can do something about whatever issue has earned Bernofsky’s ire. For instance, with Gassing the Big Sky, a 34-minute film examining the effects of coal bed methane drilling in Sheridan, Bernofsky has already sent copies to Gov. Brian Schweitzer and Richard Opper, Montana’s director of the Department of Environmental Quality. He plans to send additional copies to folks he met in Sheridan, and his screening at the Crystal is aimed at raising money to manufacture and mail those DVDs.
“Here’s what I want to do: I want to attack irresponsible corporate activity and expose them,” Bernofsky says. “I can do it, because I’ve got nothing to lose. I’m not making a living from it. I’m completely independent.”
Bernofsky, a resident of Missoula for 23 years, is a retired postal worker who now drives a school bus. He started taking photographs (and biking) when he flunked out of high school in Brooklyn, N.Y, spending his days getting as far from the city as possible, shooting still images from his bike. After earning a graduation equivalency degree, Bernofsky was accepted on probation at the University of Kansas and began experimenting with a wind-up 16mm camera. He made his first documentary after moving to California in the early ’60s—a 26-minute film called Glamour about an underground LSD lab run by a bunch of guys who “believed what they were doing would improve the world.”
“I was making a lot of personal-type documentaries until I came to Montana,” says Bernofsky, who adds he was the “straight guy” while shooting Glamour. “Then I met Charlie Jonkel, and he kicked my ass. He must have seen something in my films because he forced me to get out of myself and do something a little more beneficial.”
Jonkel, founder of Missoula’s International Wildlife Film Festival, turned Bernofsky on to the type of environmental documentaries being produced by National Geographic and the British Broadcasting Corp. Bernofsky, who never formally studied film at any level, was hooked. A short time later he made his first environmental film, Gardens by the Smelter, about the hazardous levels of lead in the soil in East Helena.
“People were ordered by the mayor not to eat the vegetables in their garden because of the smelter,” Bernofsky recalls. “When I read that I just thought, geez. It pissed me off that those fuckers were ruining a good, hard-working, blue-collar community. I thought, I’m going to kick the ass out of ASARCO [the company that owned the smelter]. This is what I’m going to do.”
And Bernofsky’s films have instigated change. For instance, after Gardens, additional media followed the story and ASARCO was eventually forced to remove soil from the residential areas. With Gassing the Big Sky, Bernofsky is pushing Montana’s leaders to pass legislation to proactively restrict the sort of methane drilling that’s allegedly made water wells in Sheridan run dry.
But Bernofsky’s films have also generated criticism. The filmmaker talks openly of environmental groups that think he’s “a loose cannon” who hurts their causes because he’s unwilling to compromise or hear both sides of environmental debates. Others find his films inaccurate or unbalanced—he doesn’t use academics or scientific experts in his films, preferring to document what affected locals have to say in their own words.
“I’ve actually had [environmentalists] say, ‘Stay out of this issue. This is our issue,’” Bernofsky says. “But, you know what, sometimes I personally question their motives. They’re making a living, so they sometimes have to make compromises.”
The other criticism Bernofsky hears has to do with the quality of his finished product. Since he doesn’t use a script, the storyline can sometimes get scattered. Since he doesn’t have a narrator—“I don’t need a professional voice from the heavens to feed people what I want them to think”—the finer details often get muddled. Since he likes to experiment with artistic shots—in Gassing the Big Sky one extended sequence shows a Sheridan street during a thunderstorm with images from the methane plants edited in during strikes of lightning—some find his style slow and amateurish. Bernofsky’s heard all of the suggestions and criticisms, and he couldn’t care less.
“I don’t address them,” he says. “I just don’t care…The way I do it is, I go to some spot and I don’t wait for golden light and I don’t direct people to do this or do that. I shoot what’s there. I accommodate what people want to do. What you see in The Biking Viking’s films is what’s there.”
His stubbornness in cinematography mirrors his steadfast dedication to advocating grassroots causes. Whereas Bernofsky used to find subjects for his films in his reading of the news, he says all his recent films came about after small local organizations or individual community members contacted him. His reputation has continued to grow, especially after he started to refer to himself as The Biking Viking three films ago.
“I’ve learned how to do what I do from thousands of mistakes, and from a belief that it’s the right thing to do,” he says. “I’m not going to change. This is real, and I’ll always have this kind of approach. The Biking Viking is not going to slow down.”
The Biking Viking premieres Gassing the Big Sky at the Crystal Theatre Thursday, Sept. 22, at 7 and 8:30 PM. $3.