Way back in 1970 two Kansans with bolshy tendencies struck out into the great unknown to visit the old world and document their travels. Along the way, they drove three VWs, met a Dutch sadist, crossed the Sahara, and nearly lost their marbles.
Now, their story has been immortalized in celluloid as a documentary called “Hitchhiking to the Edge of Sanity” produced, directed, and edited by Scott Petersen, with whom VW Vortex recently chatted.
The documentary was an Official Selection at DocUtah 2017, the Kansas City Film Fest, and the Kansas International Film Festival. A big part of that is down to the skill of the documentarian, who has previously worked with the BBC, the Food Network, and that bastion of documentaries PBS.
Petersen first learned of the story from his uncle, Steve Ewert who, as luck would have it, was one of the two Kansans on the trip. Steve took the pictures for the articles that the pair were expecting to sell upon their return to America.
The other Kansan, Dick Russell, wrote the stories with his trusty Smith Corona typewriter. Starting in Europe and looking for revolutionaries, the pair had intended to drive down to Africa to meet an exiled Black Panther in a Beetle, but it was confiscated by the Dutch police. Then they thought they’d do it in another Beetle, but that one was stolen in Paris and so they had to find another way down.
Eventually, they found themselves in Algiers heading through the Sahara with a Ford Cortina that just won’t run without fuel and a VW microbus driven by the above-mentioned Dutch communist.
A brilliant, if cruel and lazy, man, Tom spoke ten languages, was extremely well-read, and had a passionate hatred of Americans and their politics. As a result, he refused to help when the bus got stuck in the sand and eventually started deliberately driving off the road to force Steve and Dick to shovel them out.
Eventually, the pair of Kansans extricated themselves from Tom’s bus and found another way across the desert. To get the full story you can watch the doc, but one of the most interesting facts, for our purposes, is actually how hard it is to rent a VW for movie-making purposes.
One of the great things about documentaries is that they’re relatively cheap, but that does mean that its makers tend to be, in the kindest possible way, broke. In order to make the movie more than just a slideshow of Ewert’s photos, wanted to rent some cars and film some reenactments.
Actually, re-enactment is too strong a word. All he really wanted were some close-up shots of the microbus inside and out to play in the background while Dick and Steve told their story. Turns out even doing that is difficult.
There are companies that rent out old cars for movies, but according to Petersen renting the British Cortina was right out of the question. There were VWs around, but reasonably, they were all in excellent condition.
A perfect VW Microbus is great if you’re filming a movie set in ‘60s suburbia, but if you’re looking to find something that has spent days in the desert, it’s less than ideal. Add on to that the expense of renting a perfect Microbus (whose values, I don’t need to remind you, are going through the roof right now) and Petersen just couldn’t afford it.
If you watch the film, though, you will find that there are shots of a microbus, because Petersen eventually did find one that was suitably ratty and, as a result, cheap.
And the result is a pretty great documentary about an adventure that no one would try to pull off nowadays because we have too much damn sense. You can rent it on Amazon or iTunes as of February 1st, or you can attend a live screening in LA on February 16.
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