To Be Free: Harleys In Beijing
by Bill Politis
In July 2014, I had the opportunity to go to Beijing, China for free. A wealthy Boston University alumni was sending a group of kids from BU to Beijing to create short documentaries about Chinese culture. To get into the program I had to write an essay about what I wanted to film, so I wrote a short essay about how I wanted to document scooters and bicycle traffic through the city. I knew this wasn’t what I wanted to film, but I needed to get into the program so I wrote what I thought they’d like to hear. It worked.
What I really wanted to film was guys who were crazy about Harley-Davidson motorcycles. Beijing has about a million scooters and small motorcycles riding on the streets but it took three days before I finally saw a Harley. It was parked in a popular shopping district and the owner was nowhere in sight. Lei Lei, my translator and producer in Beijing, helped me write a note for the owner of the bike.
We walked away and about twenty minutes later I heard the bike start. I ran back to the street and saw a slick young guy riding with a girl on the back. I jumped into the middle of the street like a madman and stopped him. He was pretty confused and I was so excited that Lei Lei couldn’t translate quick enough, so he told us he’d think about it and rode off.
Later that night we got a text message with a location and a time. We hopped into a cab and drove an hour into a sketchy part of Beijing. Lei Lei had never been there and we couldn’t figure out exactly where they were. Then we saw a very expensive Mercedes with tinted windows. A young guy motioned for us to get in and we did. After a few tense moments the guy showed me a picture of him snowboarding and we started a conversation with Lei Lei translating for us. That guy ended up being TT, the first guy you see in the film.
He welcomed me into his group and for two weeks I was just one of the guys. Here is the complete film I put together while in Beijing “To Be Free.”