Saint Félicien, Quebec is home to one of the weirdest races in Canada. Part Indy 500 and part demolition derby, participants can enter at will and crash as they please. Serious injury is almost guaranteed.
Clocking in around six minutes,director Martin Bureau‘s Hell Runs On Gasoline! is a whirlwind trip through brutal collisions at breakneck speeds, soundtracked by the deafening whirs of revving engines. We talked with Martin about the culture behind the race (aptly titled Enfer, meaning “hell” in French) and the challenge of filming such a chaotic event.
What inspired you to take on this subject?
I come from Saint-Félicien, where this race takes place. So I knew about it since I was young, and it’s been going on for about 20 years. As a child, I was fascinated by the event. When the National Film Board and Spira Films commissioned five filmmakers to do a short doc of five minutes, for their Annual 5 Shorts Project, this idea popped up in my head. I thought it was a good subject since there’s a natural progression of build up, climax and crash at the end.
The film is a highly visual, almost noncognitive experience, without much context or back story. Can you speak to the specifics the event?
It’s a mixture of classical race and demolition derby. The pilots must complete the competition, which is 150 tours of the course, but they’re allowed to smash themselves. That’s the basic frame of the race. Every year people are injured in the race. Funnily enough, the year that I shot the film was the first time no one was injured. That was the summer of 2014.
What made this topic suited to the documentary treatment?
I choose to follow the pace car — he’s the guy who interferes in the race with his pickup to help the pilots. I wanted to recreate the intensity of the race, what it’s like to experience the race in person. A lot is going on, it’s very intense. You don’t really know where to look. My intention was to follow this intensity and to honour the race. I didn’t want to put any judgment on the event. On the people, the race, the atmosphere there. It was more about exultation.
So much of the impact of the film from the editing. Can you speak to that process?
We shot with only one camera, in 4K. It’s very loud and heavy. When we were on one side of the race something would be happening on the other side, and then we would run over and try to catch that. It was more a question of luck, if we were able to capture the most dramatic crashes. The central purpose of the editing process was to capture that chaos, to create a crescendo and a collapse.
Does this event have any metaphorical or allegorical meaning to you?
I feel that this kind of project speaks for itself. I didn’t want to judge or make anyone feel what I’m feeling. It’s an easy to understand film; just like from the point of view of the participants, the event is so simple.
It felt like a low-budget, indie interpretation of The Fast and the Furious, where the primary objective is to escape from serious concerns and get lost in the visceral world of cars and crashing and loud noises.
Exactly. I like the fact that little kids and grandmothers both like the film, for different reasons. if you like the cars, you’ll like the movie. If you hate the cars, you’ll like the movie as well. It’s a bizarre spectacle for anyone watching.
Who are the people that attend these races?
It’s in Lac-Saint-Jean, a culture of cars and ski-doos. I call it the gasoline culture. Something like 5000 people attend the race each year, it’s the biggest event of the season at this autodrome. People come from all over Quebec to watch it. Anyone can enter the race too: all you have to do is pay $50. You sign a release, just because they don’t want to be responsible for you. They explain the rules and you go. The only thing is, you can’t take a big truck, like an eight-cylinder. At the end, they pay you back your $50 to take your car to the junkyard.
What motivates people to want to do this?
I still wonder. For me, it’s totally crazy, I would never do that. But they are very skilled, and they are all involved in the mechanical parts of the process. I just felt like they didn’t really understand the possible consequences. I believe the subject would be good for a movie that is much longer: there is tons of preparation, at least a week before, they all gather and drink beer and modify their cars.They paint their cars and decorate them. They weld metal bars to protect themselves on the doors. It’s cheap but it works! They spend a lot of money on it in total, but you can buy a car for $400 and then repair it. It’s almost like me, as the filmmaker: I put so much money into my projects and everyone thinks I’m crazy!
What fascinates me the most is the very American love of gasoline. This exultation of machinery. It’s like an orgy, or like eating too much — a kind of euphoric experience. There is a release of energy after you go through the motions of life: you go to work, you eat well, you take care of your children, you pay your bills. And then, you go to to the stadium and crash cars. Maybe it’s good. It’s better to take out that aggression at home or in the streets.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a project about separation walls in the world: Palestine, Mexico and Belfast. I may mix these all together, or they will be separate. Or there may be a multimedia element to the idea, as well. I don’t know exactly, but I’m really excited.
– By Elizabeth Haq