60 Days. 30 States. 5 Bears. Uncountable Acts of Kindness.
The NoHo Arts District dot Com team, just like many of us, like a positive, feel good movie. But what about a documentary? What about one with a happy ending? In this technologically driven time, it’s nice to witness the kindness of strangers. So NoHo, on Wednesday, January 28, head over to Laemmle North Hollywood to catch the screening of American Bear: An Adventure in Kindness.
In the summer of 2010, filmmakers Sarah Sellman and Greg Grano set out on the life-changing journey that would become their feature documentary, American Bear: An Adventure in the Kindness of Strangers. Sarah and Greg critically explore American culture, compassion, and fear by relying on the kindness of strangers for a home each night of a 60-day road trip. They spend every day in a new town, across 30 states, learning why people may or may not be willing to open their homes.
The finished film began playing at festivals in 2013, and recently received the Audience Choice Award at the Atlanta Docufest. In order to share the film directly with more audiences, Sarah and Greg hit the road again in September 2014 for a cross-country tour. American Bear has now screened over 40 times at theaters, colleges, high schools, and community spaces. The first chapter of the tour spanned the Northeast and the Midwest, and focused particularly on educational opportunities to dig into the film’s themes of identity, privilege, geography, and storytelling. From a keynote presentation to hundreds of students at NYU, to a uniquely process-based discussion with high schoolers at an arts school in Connecticut, Sarah and Greg have turned American Bear into a project of inspiration and hope for all viewers.
Now in 2015, American Bear: An Adventure in the Kindness of Strangers will screen at Laemmle’s NoHo 7 in North Hollywood on Wednesday, January 28 at 7:30pm with a post-screening Q&A discussion with the filmmakers.
Why did they decide to do this film? What was the goal and hoped-for outcome?
We made this film because we felt a certain optimism about the outcome. Greg and I met our sophomore year of film school at NYU and bonded over our encounters with kindness in New York City. We wanted to make a film that would share some of these stories, but from people all over the country. After our first road trip together, we realized that there is so much of the country we rarely see, and so many people with stories to tell. This film started as our attempt to share those places and those stories. As with most documentaries, the project changed as we went. It started as a social experiment and quickly became a project about the people we met along the way and their lives.
We actually expected to sleep in the car much more often than we did. In total, we only had four nights in our car (often in a Walmart parking lot), all other evenings we slept in the homes of strangers. I remember most people thought families with young children would be reluctant to take us in (yet many of our hosts did have young children), and people often asked if we carried a gun. We learned from our first host and our own intuition to be cautious, but to expect good things instead of bad, and that worked wonderfully for us. (We of course, never brought a gun!)
What can suggestions can you give neighborhoods on how to be more “neighborhoody” or kinder to strangers?
I think it’s important to look at both the complex and the simple layers of words like “neighborly” and “kindness.” Simply, kindness is recognizing that sometimes a person is just having a rough day, and maybe they behave rudely because of that, or it’s about greeting everyone with a smile, or really being present, and not pulled into your technology so much. But kindness is complicated too. We had positive experiences in many small towns we visited – yet we believe that has a lot to do with the fact that we’re white, we’re young, people assume we’re Christian, assume we’re heterosexual – those are all privileges in that we met their expectations of who they feel comfortable with in their community. We received kindness most often from people who shared identities with us. Yet our experience helped teach us how important it is to transcend our biases, learn about our community’s history, and extend our generosity to anyone and everyone we can have a positive impact with.
What were some memorable moments of their journey?
I think about things like jumping into an ice cold river ford early in the morning, or getting a tour of our host’s 1,000-acre ranch at sunset in Montana, or seeing a local minor league baseball game, things that made it an adventure. But the most important moments are the exchanges we had with the people that hosted us. Learning from them, hearing their stories. I was particularly moved by a family in Idaho who had recently adopted 5 children into their comparatively small living quarters, and they still offered to host us. Or the morning we planed on leaving the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, receiving hand-beaded necklaces from our host. Or searching for shadows of ghosts through hundreds of photos. The exchanges of small memories with other people, the people who truly began as strangers and became friends – those are most memorable and what we cherish the most. We’re grateful to still be friends with many of our hosts, and to know that we truly do share memories together, and have shared stories about our lives.
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