DOC NYC 2020: Off the Road

“También de este lado hay sueños,” reads the graffitied border wall of Baja California, “there are dreams on this side, too.” A sprawling desert gives way to a ghost town that now dreams but once a year. They used to dream more often, the remnants of those dreams still standing, the hallowed out theaters, night clubs, reminders of what could have been. What remains in these low populous segments within the sweeping deserts south of the border are ideal conditions for a sprawling outdoor race. Where the dreams of those remaining scream like the engines of their dirt racing cars. A brightly dressed trio of musicians stands between the cacti and sweltering sprawl of the terrain, singing corridos, song-stories about three fans of the motorsport competition. The operatic narration provides an outline for the story of Off the Road, a story about how lives intersect once a year, for one of the world’s most prestigious and largest all-terrain outdoor races.

Off the Road, surprisingly, does not often cue into the excitement and the fabric of the races themselves. It does very little of that. The races, in fact, are only framed in the context of the subjects. It makes a more humanist choice, following three fans of the race: Rigo, a motorsports mechanic who films the races; Davis, an enthusiastic merchandise collector and former racer; and Paco, an activist spreading safety awareness before the race, driven by the loss of a close friend. It’s a useful framework, separating the doc from past efforts about the race itself, Dust to Glory (2005), and sequel, Dust 2 Glory (2017). What it lacks is an accumulative message, an idea of what these pieces mean when put together. The corridos are an attempt to mythologize and intersect the disparate parts but they are more interesting on their own, than watching the parts themselves.

The exploration of the race and its outcomes feel self-evident. It’s a fast and lawless kind of race, one where bystanders often shift the terrain of the track for their own amusement and to create hazards for its racers. The race is a fascinating one, because all classes of vehicles compete, from ATVs, to buggies, to trophy trucks. With more actionable racing components, the documentary would soar, but it keeps its intentions close to its chosen subjects. That is always the risk with making a documentary, it is impossible to know if that will result in a story with a beginning, middle, and end. While the song-stories try to fill that in, we can only wish for a more naturalistic construction, in that respect.

Off the Road is also composed of great thematic strengths. It certainly feels like a Western, like a musical, like a subject worth capturing more internal stories from. That all works especially well. The operatic songs are great, capturing the strength and pure beauty of the location in lyrical verse. The setting and Western constructions are interesting, painting the racers as modern-day cowboys. The spirit of the thing is holistically strong, with assured themes and the god-granted aesthetics of the land. Off the Road‘s best moments are neither of the races or the subjects itself, but the shots of the spaces where these events take place, this traveling band singing traditional Mexican songs into an endless stretch of Baja California’s desert. That’s where director José Permar exhibits the most technique, a keen eye for color and space.

Dreams are vividly realized south of the border. Off the Road has dreams, too. A bright exhibition of song and setting override the parched traditional documentary approach. Outdoor motorsports racing makes for an exciting subject, and we must wish it provided even more context for those races, outside low-quality captures of some streams, and moments where the races go badly and someone gets hurt. What’s here is a great beginning, while also feeling only partially examined. What’s most crucial, is that we dream along with the subjects, that the film emanates from a well of deep passion, lives lived and lost for the glory of motorsport.


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