The Adventure Travel Film Festival is a low-key annual camping event held on the grounds of a girl’s school in Sherborne, Dorset. For four years now, a barrage of motorbikers, campervans and other adventuring types have descended on this pretty little corner of South-West England for a weekend of adventure films, presentations, inspiration, and a strong community spirit. The festival was started by Lois Pryce and her husband Austin Vince, a rather eccentric man with a penchant for boilersuits.
Lois and Austin were kind enough to let me come to their festival and write about it for Vagabundo Magazine. I caught up with Lois after her presentation about her own solo motorbiking trip around Iran, and asked how the whole thing got started.
I’m guessing you and Austin already travellers before you started the festival?
I did my first big trip when I was thirty, and Austin did as well. He rode around the world and made a show for Discovery. I did my first trip when I was thirty, and wrote my books and stuff, so I’ve always been on the book side, while he’s made the films. Then we met up. We didn’t actually meet through travelling on motorbikes, we-through music. We were just getting settled. Austin was getting sent so many films from people, because obviously they’d watched his films, and seen them on TV, and they thought maybe he’d be interested in stuff they had done, so we’d just get all these DVDs coming in from random strangers, and we’d watch them and go “Wow, look at these guys from Poland, they rode across Siberia!” We’d show them to our mates, and then at one point we just thought “Why don’t we start a film festival?” It’d be really low key, just go sit in a field and bring a load of DVDs down and a screen and a projector, and invite some people we know, and it really just went from there. It’s amazing, we really didn’t expect it to turn out like this.
This is the 4th year in the UK and we totally sold out. It’s been growing every year. Hopefully it’ll continue to grow, but I wouldn’t want it to get huge. I think that would lose some of the atmosphere. It’s like a cozy little community and everyone knows each other. I like that aspect of it. We all decamp for the weekend; you see people again and again, and you get to know them.
How do you select films for the screenings?
We get sent so many amazing films, and obviously as the festival’s got bigger, more people have got to know about it, and we’re overwhelmed with submissions–which is brilliant. They have to be independently made, so we won’t show a TV series that’s been commissioned and filmed with a massive proper TV crew and everything—even if it might be good, it’s just not really what we’re about. On the whole, we’re looking for unusual, interesting stories that are people just getting out, doing their thing and making good quality films off their own back.
How do you decide which ones are the Starlight Screenings?
They’re the real whammers. Anything that really just leaves you like “Oh my god! I could never do that!”, or “Oh my God, that’s amazing!” Like Off the Rails on Friday night. People came away from that thinking, “Oh my god, that is so brutal and awful.” Then Deep Water is a different kind of emotional impact. That was almost about the failure of trying to have an adventure–and that’s a topic worth covering, because you don’t want all the big chest-beating, air-punching “Hey I’m tough and hard and I did this amazing adventure!” the whole time. There’s another side to it. I think it was really sad in a way, but was still worth showing. So, the Starlight Screenings are the ones that are impressive on every count. The journey is impressive, the film-making is impressive, and the story is impressive. A lot of the time, the mistake people make is that they do an amazing journey, but they don’t then turn it into an excellent, engaging story. That’s a hard trick: to construct a narrative around it, and keep the viewer watching and wanting to know what happens next. Sometimes making the film is harder than doing the trip.
Tell me about the film-making workshops.
Yeah, that’s Austin’s side. He’s the film-maker, I write books. Austin is a teacher and he’s very passionate about passing on film-making, so we do teach workshops in all aspects, from sound, to directing, to shooting an interview. There’s what they call the ‘grammar of television’, which will take your film from looking like a dodgy home movie, to looking like a proper thing. Sometimes it’s just really easy tips and tricks. They’ve been really popular this year, but we also do the travel writing and publishing workshops with Phoebe, the editor of Wanderlust.
At ATFF this year, you gave a presentation about your solo trip around Iran on a motorbike. Was that your first solo adventure?
No, my first solo adventure was Alaska to Argentina in 2003-2004. That was a trip of 10 months, 20,000 miles there and back, 14 countries. That was brilliant. I’d worked all my life really, since I left school,. I just sort of had enough of sitting in an office and decided to hit the road. It was genuinely life changing, because from that, my book came out, and then a whole new career. It was totally unexpected. You go on the road and you think, “Yeah, I’ll have a great time and meet some cool people and see some nice things and I’ll ride my motorbike and have a laugh,” but it brings so many other things. It was almost like a bi-product of the trip was this whole new life of writing, and then this film festival has come out of that. You just don’t know what’s going to happen. I feel very strongly that it’s worth taking that risk, because so many other things can come from it. I left my job and didn’t know what I was going to do next, and it’s been brilliant.
Three years later, in 2006, I rode from London to Cape Town, solo again, and wrote a book about that. Iran is my third big solo bike trip.
How did your expectations of Iran marry up with the reality?
Just so different, in a really good way. Like I was saying in my talk, you can’t help but have these images in your mind, and there are obviously things to consider about travelling in an Islamic country as a woman—and Iran is particularly hard-line in the way it treats women. These things were all very much in my mind, but I just was not ready for this onslaught of warmth and kindness from everyone—men, women, all ages—it just really knocked me for six. That trip had more of an impact on me than anything else I’ve ever done. I feel I came back a different person, which, I suppose, is what travel is meant to do to you, isn’t it? I’m just so glad that I did it.
As somebody who has also travelled around Iran solo, I really recognised the stories about the endless hospitality. So my question is, how did you cope with the unending hospitality, and need for space in a country where that’s basically an alien concept?
Yeah, well, sometimes I would just book into a hotel and have a night of not speaking. Because it is overwhelming sometimes. It is difficult travelling on your own, especially somewhere like that, and you have to know your limits and know what you need. So if you just need a duvet day in a nice hotel with cable TV, do it! That’s my advice to anyone. You only need one night and a day off, then you’re alright, you’re off again and everything is great. But yeah, sometimes you just need to stop and be quiet, and other times you need to take those invitations and see where they lead you. I do believe in saying yes a lot, and I think that’s generally good advice on any travel. Because that’s where the weird things happen, and that’s of course the fun stuff.
What would you say was your most memorable experience?
Probably the story I recounted about when I was staying with the Iranian Army General and I thought he was going to be all kind of gruff and worn, you know, a warmongering hard-bitten guy—and he was just this lovely, fun, really silly kind of guy, gooning around. The story I told was about how we were in the elevator, counting down the floor numbers, and he said “The final countdown” and we burst into song and starting singing it together, just a crazy situation! That was the highlight of my journey, I think, just because of the complete random madness of it. I never thought that I’d be in a lift singing The Final Countdown with an Iranian Army General. But there were so many things–just the kindness and the real natural warmth of Iranian people. It’s something I’ve never really encountered.
What advice would you pass on to other females wanting to travel around Iran?
Well there’s always people that will tell you it’s a bad idea. I mean, everybody except for my mum and my husband—they were the only two people who thought it was a good idea really. On the whole, if you tell somebody you want to go to Iran, “What the hell do you want to go there for?” is the standard response. I’d say the most important thing is, don’t listen to the nay-sayers, seek out the positive stories of the people who have actually been there. What you’ll find is that the people who warn you against it have never been, so what the hell do they know? Don’t believe the bad hype. Obviously be aware, I mean, you do have to take the dress code seriously. There isn’t any messing with it. I know two girls who didn’t. One girl from Australia turned up without a headscarf on, and you know, that’s like going topless, isn’t it? You just have to find out before you go what you’ve gotta wear. Another girl I know went in recently, not long after me. She had a headscarf, but she didn’t know about wearing what they call the manto, the kind of shirt-dress thing. She just had a regular t-shirt on top, and people were all staring at her because of that. So, of course it’s total bullshit, and annoying, and a load of old bollocks, but if you go in there you have to know what you’re getting into and go along with it. So, yeah, do your research on that stuff. “When in Rome” is just the usual travelling advice, isn’t it? But also just be prepared to be fed. Go on a diet first, that would be my main advice.
Where are your sights set next?
Well, I’ve got a few little trips out of work. I’m doing some talks in America and I’m gonna go and do yoga in India. That’ll be fun, I’ve never been to India. But I haven’t got any big bike trips planned because I’m concentrating on my book. It’s going to be my third book, the Iran book. I’d like to finish that by the end of the year.
I look forward to seeing that out next year, and maybe you’ll be speaking to us about some other adventure.
Hopefully, yeah. I’ve noticed that they come about three years apart. I do a lot of short trips all the time, but the big ones. I live in London on a sailing barge with Austin, and I’m in a band, so I’ve got quite a lot going on at home. I’m not one of these ‘have to be on the road all the time’ people. I like to go away, I love to travel, but I love coming home as well.
This interview has been edited and condensed.