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Wide Open Road: FREEDOM AND FACADE IN THE MEANING OF VANLIFE.

Jim Lounsbury's documentary paints a sunny picture of van-dwelling nomads in Australia and the US, whose chosen lifestyle follows a long tradition of countercultural organising and sustainable-living practices. But, as KATH DOOLEY finds, some less glamorous realities lie beneath the surface of the film's overly romanticised, Instagram friendly narrative - a tension that provides plentiful opportunities for primary and secondary classroom study.

Have you ever felt suffocated by your nineto-five job? Have you dreamt of throwing in the towel and pursuing an entirely different lifestyle? This dream has become a reality for many of the participants featured in The Meaning of Vanlife (2019), a new film by director Jim Lounsbury. This documentary takes us on the road with a number of adventurous 'Vanlifers' who have given up material ties to bricks-and-mortar homes and traditional careers in favour of a nomadic life living in a van.

Lounsbury himself spent four months living in a van while making the documentary, working closely with members of Vanlife Diaries, a collective that promotes the lifestyle of van-based living across Instagram and other online platforms. Over the course of the film's eighty-eight minutes, we meet several couples and singles as they move across Australia and the US to connect at 'Vanlife' gatherings. Their stories often overlap, with a rejection of consumerism, a search for freedom and a desire to build authentic community relationships often cited as key motivators for their lifestyle change.

The film opens with scenes of young American couple Kit Whistler and JR Switchgrass preparing their breakfast in a vintage orange van. She fries bacon while he grinds coffee, and they talk about the lack of rituals in their life. After seven years on the road, they have adapted to their small living space and sometimes leaky van, taking full advantage of the natural world as they move from location to location. Switchgrass describes their work at the odd farm along the way as a means to earn money to survive, but it is otherwise unclear how they spend their time.

Cutting to Australia, the film introduces Jonny Dustow, who recalls his journey from being a full-time worker with two mortgages to becoming a permanent Vanlifer. As someone with a passion for connecting people and sharing stories, he established the Vanlife Diaries website, and quickly attracted many followers. An online connection with Denver-based Vanlifer Kathleen Morton soon drew him to the US, and the documentary follows his journey to meet his peers in this overseas environment.

Along the way, we hear the stories of a number of individuals and enter into the minimal spaces of their vans. While these tales are largely of freedom and inspiration, there are a few dark moments. For example, Noami Grevemberg speaks of being rejected by close friends who treated her lifestyle choice with disdain, which led to bouts of depression and anxiety. This friction with friends and/or family is echoed by other participants in the film.

Some of the more unforgiving aspects of life on the road are described by one interviewee who spent a punishing Colorado winter living in her van without heating; she recalls how all liquids in the vehicle froze each night, including foodstuffs and toiletries. Other Vanlifers describe their problems with vans that break down, leaving them stranded and inconvenienced. These adverse conditions aside, all participants in the documentary remain committed to the van lifestyle, and the film's message as to the benefits of Vanlife is overwhelmingly positive.

This is an observational, interview-based documentary that captures the joy of the open road in numerous aerial wide shots. The cinematography, largely undertaken by Lounsbury, is inspiring, capturing the beauty of the natural environment. The narrative of the film has no clear structure, meandering from one Vanlife gathering to the next along with the free-spirited attendees. While one gets a sense of the strong feeling of community shared by the Vanlifers, and is easily placed to understand the search for authenticity that seems to underpin this movement, it is not actually clear how the movement itself fosters this sense of authenticity. Scenes of Vanlife gatherings show participants singing and playing guitars, engaging in recreational activities, and hanging out and having fun. But it is less clear what they do outside of this or how they stay afloat financially in order to cover general living expenses and the cost of van repairs. Apart from one interviewee mentioning his drum-teaching business, this subject of long-term funding for a life on the road is given little attention.

Vanlife: A political act?

One interviewee who has lived on the road for a year, professor and founder of SD Campervans Breanne Acio, describes 'houselessness' - in contrast to homelessness - as a form of resistance against capitalism. 'It is filled with agency,' she declares. This is a rare moment when the film digs into the politics of living in a vehicle. In his director's statement, Lounsbury describes the 'darker side' to Vanlife that he observed while making the documentary:

People, down and out on their luck, being forced to live in their vehicles. Professionals forced to live in their cars in urban environments due to spiking rents. Poverty stricken grey nomads, working for pennies a month, assembling products for Wallmart [sic]. (1)

The Meaning of Vanlife avoids these subjects in favour of people who voluntarily choose to live in their vans, and enjoy doing so. The Vanlife movement isn't new, and one can trace its roots to the Beat generation of the 1950s and early 1960s, members of which rejected conventional lifestyles in favour of freedom, spontaneity and personal expression. Individuals labelled 'travellers' in the years that followed challenged mainstream societal expectations and were often feared or hated as a result, leading to clashes with the police and other authorities. The hippie generation of the 1960s and 1970s gave rise to 'free festivals', large gatherings of travellers who would inhabit an environment and play music on the side. The 2005 BBC Timeshift documentary episode 'New Age Travellers' profiles the Windsor Free Festival in the UK, an event that, from 1972 to 1974, attracted thousands of travellers who illegally camped on land behind Windsor Castle. As free festivals grew in number around the UK, travellers would often spend the summer moving in convoy between these gatherings, choosing to move into squats in the cities in winter. (2)

One can find some parallels between these earlier free festivals and the Vanlife gatherings shown in Lounsbury's documentary, although the latter seem cleaner and less confrontational in terms of clashes with police and landowners. (3) Indeed, the more challenging aspects of van living, such as the problems of finding somewhere legal to park, go largely unexplored in The Meaning of Vanlife. For this reason, the documentary often feels somewhat like a promotional film that builds upon the romanticised portrayals of compact living presented on the Vanlife Diaries Instagram page, in which we see countless images of attractive young people in idyllic natural environments, posing alongside their vehicles. (4) While the Vanlife interviewees' calls for a lifestyle that is more sustainable and less consumerist echo those of the participants of the BBC documentary, one can't help but feel that a somewhat limited view of the experience is being presented to the audience in Lounsbury's film.

A quick internet search uncovers a number of documentaries seeking to reveal the grislier side of contemporary van living. For example, The Reality of nVanLife (Forrest Stevens & Gabriel Swift, 2018) questions romanticised notions of the mobile home, labelling it 'a young person's game' for people who are 'comfortable with being uncomfortable'. (5) The somewhat cynical narrator of this documentary questions the truthfulness of the Vanlife experience that is presented online, and links its Instagram culture to product promotion and merchandising. Similarly, Kirsten Dirksen's 2016 YouTube video '#Vanlife with No Filter' follows a couple who live in a van as they struggle to find legal parking and free wi-fi, (6) and the 2018 VICE News short documentary 'The Hidden Homelessness Crisis in California' profiles a single mother who lives in her mini-van while studying. (7) These works present a troubling picture of mobile living, challenging the rose-coloured portrayal presented in Lounsbury's work.

Classroom activities

There is much scope for both primary and secondary students at various year levels to use this documentary as a starting point for discussion and reflection. Links can be made to the Australian Curriculum's F to 10 strands in the Humanities and Social Sciences - in particular, Civics and Citizenship as well as Economics and Business - along with the cross-curriculum priority of Sustainability. The film is also a useful resource for senior secondary Media Arts students who are interrogating documentary form and point of view.

In regard to Civics and Citizenship, Year 8 students may wish to examine Australian laws regarding mobile living. This aligns with the 'government and democracy' content descriptor that calls for students to understand 'the freedoms that enable active participation in Australia's democracy within the bounds of law, including freedom of speech, association, assembly, religion and movement'. (8) Taking this a step further, Year 10 students may wish to compare Australian mobile-living laws with those in Asia or another region. This would allow for questions about how Australian government policies are shaped and defined by our global context and international obligations.

On the topic of Economics and Business, Year 7 students might use the documentary as a tool to, as per the Australian Curriculum's level description, reflect upon 'what it means to be a consumer, a worker and a producer in the market, and the relationships between these groups'. (9) By interrogating the activities of the Vanlifers, as presented in the documentary and online, students can consider why people work (or choose not to), types of work and different ways of deriving an income. The nomadic activities of the Vanlifers call for reflection upon the way that the notion of 'work' affects individual self-esteem through living standards and contribution to community.

Addressing the cross-curriculum priority of Sustainability, The Meaning of Vanlife provides a starting point for inquiry into 'the ways social, economic and environmental systems interact to support and maintain human life' and how students might 'participat[e] critically and [act] creatively in determining more sustainable ways of living'. (10) Students in Years 5 to 9 may wish to interrogate the documentary participants' attempts to create a more ecologically and socially just world through reduced habits of consumption. They might further research the Vanlife community online so as to analyse their notions of community and interdependence, and how these involve sustainable living practices. This project involves reflection on the notion of living for periods in isolation and 'off the grid', and might be undertaken through post-film discussion, followed by student research and a written report.

Furthermore, students in these year levels may wish to imagine and plan a hypothetical adoption of Vanlife with their family unit, plotting the resources needed and the adjustments that they would have to make to survive. For example, where would they park their van, and what utilities (power, gas, internet) would they be able to access? How would they cope in a small space and, potentially, without a shower or a toilet? Such a project calls for a consideration of how essential tasks are carried out, as well as the impacts of mobile living on leisure activities and entertainment. Students undertaking this task might list the positives and negatives of mobile living, and make conclusions regarding their willingness to undertake such a lifestyle change.

In terms of the senior secondary curriculum, Media Arts students might wish to examine the documentary's observational and participatory style. Certainly, the point of view of the various interviewees provides an interesting point for discussion. The classroom teacher may wish to interrogate the demographics of the participants (which, on the surface, appear to be largely young, white and educated), so as to consider the voices that are missing. The film's coverage of Vanlife gatherings show that older travellers and young children are present in the community, but that they do not appear as interview subjects. As a result, potentially interesting discussions on the long-term viability of life on the road, and on how children cope with growing up in a van, are not included in the film. Lounsbury describes the Vanlife community as 'an eclectic mix of people'; however, the documentary does seem to be dominated by one of the categories he mentions: 'millennials who opt to live a more carefree life without the financial burdens of rent or mortgages'. (11) This limited viewpoint leaves room for further research on and analysis of the demographics of mobile living. For this reason, students might be encouraged to do a comparative analysis of The Meaning ofVanlife and one of the other films mentioned previously.

Conclusion

The Meaning of Vanlife is an enjoyable film that presents an enviable, freedom-focused lifestyle. In our current age of conspicuous consumption and devastating climate change, it is easy to identify with the participants of the film and to appreciate their attempts to lead a simpler, less cluttered and more 'authentic' existence. While the cramped living situations portrayed on screen would challenge the average person, the Vanlifers seem to take moments of adversity in their stride, not just surviving in their mobile homes but thriving.

In his director's statement, Lounsbury comments that 'Vanlife on the surface can appear to be a fad, driven by hashtags and vans in beautiful locations'. (12) While he aims to create a more rounded portrayal of the Vanlife movement, exploring the aims and motivations of its followers, it is questionable whether this documentary moves much beyond romanticised notions of van living. It is worth considering the many previously noted points of view that are missing from the story, and also the details that are left out of the interviewees' stories. For example, the film's press kit reveals that the young couple who open the film, Whistler and Switchgrass, are a 'talented writer' and 'accomplished photographer' respectively. (13) Visiting the couple's website, one discovers that they have an Instagram page with 155,000 followers, a blog and an online shop selling self-authored books and fanzines," activities that go unmentioned in the film. Nonetheless, the beautiful imagery on their social media feed - much like that shown in the documentary - leaves the viewer hungry for engagement with the open road.

Dr Kath Dooley is a filmmaker and senior lecturer in the School of Media, Creative Arts and Social Inquiry at Curtin University. Kath's research interests include screenwriting, production methodology for traditional and 560 film, screen education, and French cinema.

Endnotes

(1) Jim Lounsbury, 'Directors [sic] Statement', The Meaning of Vanlife official website, <https://www.vanlife.com.au/the-meaning-of-vanlife>, accessed 1 October 2019.

(2) 'New Age Travellers', Timeshift, BBC Four, aired 21 October 2004.

(3) For more on this topic, see Richard Jinman, 'The Battle of the Beanfield: The Violent New-age Traveller Clash with Police at Stonehenge Remembered 30 Years On', The Independent, 30 May 2015, <https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/the-battle-of-the-beanfield-the-violent-new-age-traveller-clash-with-poliee-at-stonehenge-remembered-l0287028.html>, accessed 1 October 2019.

(4) See <https://www.instagram.com/vanlifediaries/>, accessed 1 October 2019.

(5) 'The Reality of #VanLife - Full Documentary Movie', YouTube, 12 August 2018, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A6McizBPKaE>, accessed 1 October 2019.

(6) '#Vanlife with No Filter: Couple Records Work/Life on Wheels', YouTube, 15 February 2016, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZGud34X3j5M&t=15ls>, accessed 1 October 2019.

(7) 'The Hidden Homelessness Crisis in California (HBO)', YouTube, 6 September 2018, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2wCHtOTxQak>, accessed 1 October 2019.

(8) 'Civics and Citizenship', Australian Curriculum, available at <https://www.australiancurriculum.edu.au/f-10-curriculum/humanities-and-social-sciences/civics-and-citizenship/>, accessed 1 October 2019.

(9) 'Economics and Business', Australian Curriculum, available at <https://www.australiancurriculum.edu.au/f-10-curriculum/humanities-and-social-sciences/economics-and-business/>, accessed 1 October 2019.

(10) 'Sustainability', Australian Curriculum, available at <https://www.australiancurriculum.edu.au/f-10-curriculum/cross-curriculum-priorities/sustainability/>, accessed 1 October 2019.

(11) Lounsbury, op. cit.

(12) ibid.

(13) Cubic Films, The Meaning of Vanlife press kit, 2019, P. 2.

(14) See Idle Theory Bus website, <http://www.idletheorybus.com>, accessed 1 October 2019.
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Author:Dooley, Kath
Publication:Screen Education
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Dec 1, 2019
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