On the surface level, The Trails Before Us is simply a film about mountain biking: a sports profile of what it is like to glide on two wheels through the rugged and beautiful landscapes of the American Southwest. But, as with any great sports documentary, the film is built on a much deeper foundation than the simple pursuit of athletic skill. Director Fritz Bitsoie introduces us to Nigel James, a 17-year-old Diné mountain biker as he hosts the first enduro race in the Navajo Nation, and through that journey, we get a greater understanding of the connection the native community has with their land and culture.
For me, one of the great elevators of any short film, regardless of it being narrative or doc, is a sense of place and cultural specificity: why this place? Why these people? Why at this time?
The Trails Before Us seems to ruminate deeply in these questions as it poetically weaves heritage, tradition, and naturalism into a fulfilling visual tapestry. With a surprisingly economic runtime, the film straddles a variety of interesting narrative threads, propelled forward by profound soundbites from a variety of players. On a primary plot level, we watch as James proudly brings mountain biking to his remote corner of the Navajo Nation. But, with this simple act, we see how mountain biking becomes a way to restore and repurpose the land in an eco-friendly way. There is also a touching and symbolic link to the ancestors who have come before him: mountain biking is reminiscent of the sacred bond between the Diné people and horses. Whether they traverse the landscape on horseback or on bike, the journey connects the Diné to their land and traditional culture.
Bitsoie, a Diné native himself, relates to Short of the Week:
“I’m hoping to show a different side of the Navajo Nation and offer a peek into Diné culture and our people. To showcase the vast contrast in landscapes that some may be surprised to find in the Southwest. Everything is so rich out there, I wanted it to feel tangible, nostalgic, yet modern and grounded while giving the story and approach a cinematic touch. I wanted to take the challenge of an action sports film and make something measured in pace, celebratory in tone, dreamlike whole remaining authentic and respectful to the culture, people, and story. I’m very proud of what our team has achieved with the film.”
The film’s rich cultural identity is supplemented by truly gorgeous landscape cinematography: sweeping plateaus and wide-expanses of rock and brush. There’s an immenseness to it all that is both awe-inspiring and humbling in its sheer size, especially as the Navajo Nation’s heritage is so intrinsically linked to an appreciation of nature. The result is meditative: it’s not a fast-paced documentary, but I found myself lost in the film’s transcendent visual poetry.
The Trails Before Us had a quite a short film festival tour, screening at Big Sky (Winner Artistic Vision), SXSW, SFFILM, and the Seattle Film Festival. For Bitsoie’s next project, he’s hoping to tackle something narrative-driven that still stays focused on native people and cultures. Currently in pre-production, his follow-up short will focus on a middle aged Navajo medicine man grappling with grief and questioning his faith in a modern world as he drives across the Navajo reservation on an eerie, lonely night to a patient’s home.