• Director Dylan River (Supplied)Source: Supplied
How a gruelling motorcycle race across Alice Springs became River’s latest documentary – 'Finke: There and Back'.
Travis Akbar

29 Nov 2019 - 12:32 PM  UPDATED 29 Nov 2019 - 12:32 PM

There are a lot of Australians out there that are working consistently across the Australian and International film industries. We don’t hear much about them and they probably like it that way, but the likes of Alex Russel (S.W.A.T., Jungle), Elizabeth Debicki (Breath, Widows) and Bella Heathcote (Beneath Hill 60, The Man in the High Castle) are always working, regardless of whether we hear about them or not.

Dylan River, however, is one we should be hearing more about. River isn’t an actor though, he’s a film maker.

The son of Producer Penelope McDonald and Award-Winning Director Warwick Thornton, he remembers when he was young, going to the Australian Film, Radio and Television School with his father Warwick, “sitting on dollies and being pushed around”. His first official job in the film industry was at 15 years of age, in the art department on the set of his dad’s multiple award-winning 2009 film, Samson and Delilah. 

But film making wasn’t always the direction River wanted to head in, with motorbike riding being a focus before film making was. River grew up in Alice Springs, the starting point for the Finke Desert Race, an annual motorbike, and now car race the goes from Alice Springs to the small community of Aputula (Finke) and back.

“Being a kid, especially a young boy, sitting on the sidelines and seeing these guys just belt through the desert at 200km/h on their motorbikes was really exciting,” says River. “For me, these guys were like the action figures…superheroes with a helmet on. Behind that sort of mask, they were just superhuman with the things that they would do, and the risks that they would take.”

River has attempted the Finke Desert Race eight times, his first at 16 years of age, and it hasn’t always been kind to him, with River coming to a point where “after many years of not finishing, getting hurt, mechanical failures” – what he called the “heartache of the race” – he thought to himself maybe it was time to stop and actually made a film about the race.

The race became River’s latest documentary – Finke: There and Back.  Written and directed by River, the documentary aims to show, through his friends and other participants, the gruelling process that he’s been through. In short: “the dangers of it, the love of it”.

Finke: There and Back, is an exceptional documentary. Beautifully filmed, written and narrated by Award-Winning actor Eric Bana who is noted as having a love for racing and “came on board pretty easily” for the documentary.

The cinematography is another standout, with engaging action shots of the race and wonderful time lapses. I must admit though, while it was obvious the race would require more than one cinematographer, given the race stretches out of 200km of desert, I was surprised to see over 15 cinematographers credited.

River admits that logistically, this was challenging to film. “I can’t think of anything I could relate it to, but we have 250km of track that’s through the middle of Australia with no phone reception. It’s not a circuit, so when a rider comes past, they pass for 10 seconds, and then you don’t see them again for a whole day.”

The production used a lot of camera people along the track and plenty of helicopters.  River and the production team ended up with over 300 hours of footage, which took a huge effort to edit over 6 months. One of the stories that emerged from the footage was that of Isaac Elliott, a paraplegic, who was determined finish the race. After having a motorbike modified, Isaac, who was also a producer on the documentary, took to the sandy desert track with two escorts. It was remarkable to say the least. Isaac was just one of many arresting stories to feature in the documentary, making watching it all the more worthwhile.

Finke: There and Back, is an endearing documentary, which showcases the Finke Desert Race and speaks to River’s skills as filmmaker. But the film isn’t River’s only recent success. Robbie Hood, a TV show available on SBS on Demand, was co-written and directed by River, and is nominated for an AACTA for best online Drama or Comedy. The success of Robbie Hood is leading to a second series, which also speaks to River’s talents. The Indigenous filmmaker’s knack for film has him in line to potentially direct his first feature film in 2020, working on a script by Award-Winning Indigenous Playwright, Nathan Maynard.

With so many options, whichever direction River chooses to take his career in, there’s no doubt his name will rise to the fore. There’s really only one question: when will Hollywood come calling?

 See the trailer here.

Special events screenings of FINKE: THERE AND BACK are running across Australia from Dec 4.