This blog follows the journey of Sarah and Greg as they made their film. To see a trailer, read more, learn about the progress of the film or share your story visit AMERICANBEARFILM.COM


60 days. 25 States. 5 Bears.

Sarah and Greg are setting out on an adventure exploring American trust and fear through hospitality. Armed with their charm, courage, and a camera, they will rely on the kindness of strangers for a home each night, and if they're lucky, a few meals along the way.


The story began in summer 2009 when Greg exclaimed in his sleep, "We have to go to Bear, Colorado!" Unfortunately, no Bear actually exists in Colorado. However, there are five Bears in America, fortuitously located in a perfect a 'U' around the continental U.S. - in Washington, Idaho, Arizona, Arkansas, and Delaware. Following the trail of the Bears, Sarah and Greg will travel through 25 states of all different cultures, demographics, populations, and Americans.


Through conversations with locals, we will explore our themes on a personal level and embrace the stories that turn strangers into neighbors. Our discussions with scholars and professionals will dig into the philosophy and nature of a core aspect of what makes us human. We will understand why (or if) we let people into our hearts and our homes.

Check us out at: facebook.com/BearDocumentary

4.24.2011

Launching Our Official Website!

A lot of exciting things have been going on in the last couple months -- and we're about to kick some of them into action!

Our brand new website will feature our first full trailer for the film, as well as photos, this blog in a new format, and a special page we're most excited about: Your Voice, which will feature stories, photos, songs, videos, any medium from any person about kindness, connections, and America. Send us Your Voice at BearDocumentary@gmail.com!

The site goes live at 8:30pm on May 9th and we're throwing a party in New York City! From 7:30-10 we'll be partying at Brad's restaurant and bar, at 10 Waverly Place in Manhattan. Everyone is welcome to join us and meet dozens of other fun and friendly people!

But here's the exciting part -- in honor of the themes of the film the party is a PAY IT FORWARD PARTY -- which means we want you
to do something nice for someone else at the party or before the party. (Read some of our ideas!)

PAY IT FORWARD PARTY – MISSIONS!

On the road, we often received many things from our hosts: food, experiences (we went to concerts, lakes, beaches; we played board games, bocce), we were given books to read, music to explore, mementos of friendships formed. We kept in touch. That’s what we want to do here. Not mandatory, but highly encouraged. Our ideas:

1. Bring a stranger, a tourist, or someone you met in the last week – someone you introduce yourself to specifically to bring them to the Pay it Forward Party. Show them what New York has to offer!

2. Bring your favorite recipe or a treat to share. (We wont be eating any outside food, but we can certainly distribute it!)

3. Bring a craft or something that you made to give to someone you don’t know – a tie-dyed shirt, a friendship bracelet, a key chain, sculpy art, a sketch, a painting, a comic strip, a mix CD, a list of your favorite restaurants in the city.

4. Bring something from home that you no longer need to pass on to a stranger. Your old iPod (mine will be there). A book. An old (but clean) shirt. A candle. A scarf...

5. Bring photos from what you’ve seen in America – your last vacation, your last road trip, even just your hometown. Tell us stories!

6. Bring a poem (that you’ve written, or that you’re moved by) that has something to say about race, gender, sociology, and human connections.

7. Do a random act of kindness, and bring it to the party however you can: as a story, a photo, or however you can share it and inspire.

8. Bring a post card addressed to yourself -- exchange it with a stranger so you can become pen pals.

9. Do five little (but important) things over the week – hold a door open for a stranger, smile at someone who looks sad, help someone carry their groceries, give directions to someone who is lost, talk with a homeless person, pick up trash, share a snack with someone, donate blood…..

10. This party is about the paying forward of energy, time, money, kindness – you get it! So bring something that belongs here!

ALSO ------> Brad's has super yummy (and inexpensive) food and drinks to enjoy also! We will be playing music from the band who did the music for the trailer, and writing things on walls (covered with paper of course).

Thanks for reading, and check out the site starting May 9th!

11.25.2010

Happy Thanksgiving!


Thanksgiving celebrates family, food, happiness and health. It’s a huge part of American culture, community and collaboration.  It’s about joining cultures and giving thanks. In this spirit of all of that, we wanted to let you know how thankful we are for this summer, for the experiences we had, for the adventure of a lifetime and the kindness we experienced every step of the way.

We wanted to let you know how thankful we are for you!

This summer, we took a huge risk, and so did you – we were putting our lives in the hands of strangers, in the hands of the country, and you were letting in two people and a camera, after just a couple minutes of conversation. But as our first host Joe predicted, we met the people we were supposed to meet. Amazing people, amazing stories, and amazing and constant care and sharing.  So for the people who opened their homes and their hearts to us, we are thankful for you. Thank you for giving us a roof to sleep under, a meal to eat, and a story to share. Thank you for opening up to us, for spending time with us, for proving our optimism about people in America, and hopefully proving it for countless future viewers.

The journey into making this film started months before we hit the road. We wrote so many grants, sent out so many letters and worked so hard to get our film made. But without the people who supported us we would never have made it to our first home. So for those who donated time, money, snacks, and advice to help us make this film, know that we are thankful for you. Thank you for getting us on our feet. Thank you for helping us meet so many amazing people. Thank you for being our first kind strangers. Or not so strangers.

We are not doing this alone. We are joined by a fabulous team of editors, producers, buzzers and website designers who volunteer their time to make our film possible. They are all behind the scenes, all working diligently. So to our team – Thank you. Thank you for doing your jobs so well. Thank you for all of your hard work and time.

We have a phenomenal support network – our family, our friends, our team, our hosts and supporters. All of you make us incredibly excited for the future of our film.

What is in the future? We know it’s been a while since you’ve heard from us. So much has happened!

We started editing the second we got back – we now have four editors working hard on the film – Parrish Tigh, Alex Forstenhausler, Mahsooma Abbas, and Roxy Harbitter. We have a rough cut of about the first half of the movie completed and soon we will be entering our second stage. We will have video footage up by the end of next week, so you can see some of the beautiful footage that we shot – only minutes of our 90 hours, but a great sneak preview of what’s to come.

Our co-producer Savannah Winchester is working as hard as ever helping us with our buzz campaign, our upcoming press campaign, and recruiting members for the team. We have a website under construction – Katrina Kopeloff and Marly Wilson have been bouncing many exciting and creative ideas around with us about the website. It should be up in the next month.

Last week Sarah attended a distribution conference, with sessions and conversations inspiring countless ideas about getting our movie out there! She’s now working on an elaborate business plan, along with guidance from our distribution professor. Sarah’s become intrigued and obsessed with the process (and Greg is thrilled to support and explore everywhere this is heading).

Much like Thanksgiving, our film is made up of different components, and stuffed with different themes: family, food, community, culture (and pie!). It’s a holiday that celebrates everything we want to celebrate in the making of our film. Have a fabulous Thanksgiving! Celebrate your family, your friends, and our strange and wonderful culture. Be kind to a stranger in the spirit of the turkey! (Or tofurkey if you are meatlessly inclined!) Thank you for everything and enjoy the pie!


Be kind to a stranger,
Sarah and Greg

10.03.2010

A Collection of Photos From the Second Half

[More soon!]











The Road





The falls just before Bonner's Ferry, Idaho




Arrival








A very American landscape.

9.21.2010

Fishing for Bears

Catfish is a new documentary that's sweeping New York and hopes to be sweeping the nation soon. It's distributed by Universal Studios, opening in multiplexes in NY and LA, then expanding to theaters across the country. It's ostensibly made by three relative-nobodies, twentysomethings from New York who begin documenting a Facebook relationship and end up following it to surprising ends. Everyone I know loves it.

I saw Catfish last weekend, and I was thoroughly entertained. It has a compelling story; I was never bored. I cared about the characters -- even though they were real and not played by a celebrity. I had a great time for 90 minutes.

The whole time I was watching it, I couldn't help comparing it to American Bear. Of course, our film is still 90 hours long -- we're working with a team of editors to funnel it down, a few days of footage at a time. But I know what's in that footage -- it's full of rich and beautiful landscapes, people, and ideas. Most of the shots in Catfish seem unintentional, poorly framed, happenstance -- and it works! Imagine what our no-name documentary could do!

Sarah and I are both in a class focusing on distribution strategies. We are reminded again and again that films need to define their audience, and in most cases, connections make a huge difference. We're not connected; the executive producer on Catfish is Brett Ratner (director of the Rush Hour movies). As for defining our audience, we have often thought that our film should appeal to all audiences -- we have all kinds of people in our film, any demographic of age, race, gender, we've got it covered, and with the scope and nature of our film, we really strive to speak about America, if not humanity, as a whole. But no film is marketed to every audience -- as our professor said tonight, "Hope is not a strategy" -- we can't just hope that everyone will want to see it. And how we put together the film depends on our ideal audience: do we focus on the benevolent Christians, or the profane young people we stayed with? Can we have them both in it? Aren't we supposed to present a full exploration of the country?

Our professor told us about a film that played at Sundance last year and has yet to get picked up by a distribution company. It has great moments, and fairly famous stars -- but it's tone is redemptive and spiritual while also full of curse words, making it unappealing to both possible audiences. Of course, many films are misrepresented in their marketing, and Catfish is getting some negative word-of-mouth because its trailer is very misleading: it looks like a horror film, but in actuality, the trailer is the scariest thing associated with it. Fortunately, their movie is still good enough that people get over their initial disillusionment and enjoy.

My main criticism of Catfish is its scope: it's about three guys, their direct story, and the movie they're making. It's compelling, but it never uses its rich themes and hot-button topics -- Facebook relationships, the value of meeting people face-to-face, trust and curiosity. As is, the film doesn't stick with me. It didn't get me thinking about my own experiences, it doesn't expand my understanding of the topics. It was just a nice way to spend an hour and a half.

Wherever we take American Bear as it becomes more and more focused into a concise film, we know it will have a larger scope. Our film is just as much about our personal journey as it is about trust and fear in the country -- and it's often just as much about our journey as it is about the people we meet. We made a list of themes for our editors -- and it's in double digits. Likewise, our "mission statement" is a full paragraph. When we start seeing pieces fitting together, different scenes/people/days put into conversation with one another, we'll focus our aim. But it will always be an adventure through American culture -- and if we befriend Brett Ratner, we might just be the next (but bigger, better, and bearer) Catfish.

9.12.2010

A Letter From Wells

Just before we ended our trip, Greg and I got a letter in response to our midway posting. It was from a couple in Wells, Nevada. And they weren’t pleased.

The letter addressed some interesting concerns – our experiences being too brief to really witness a full town; timing; circumstance. The thought that we are judging a whole town on just the few people that we meet.

Because the person who wrote the letter has not given me explicit permission to post it, I will refrain. But I would like to post our response, because I think it gets at something important.



Dear Mr. and Mrs. [Person],
Thank you so much for your feedback. We apologize for anything we may have said that offended you.

We reread our blog post after receiving your email. We'd love to post your letter along with this response on the blog if you don't mind - I think the feedback could start a very positive conversation about first the affect of our film and commentary.

The blog is about our impressions, our voices; but in the movie the story will be told by the voices of the others; Wells will speak for itself.

We would, however, like to address your concerns about our impressions and the commentary we chose to make.

Our comments were not mean to be derogatory but simply a description of what we experienced. We're sorry that we did not include the two of you and your kindness in the description of our day. But, as you'll notice we did certainly mention some of the other friendly people we met, who eventually led us to our hosts in the evening.

This post is about first impressions. If you'll notice I cited my own bad mood and rough start in the morning as a partial cause of my negative impression, The entirety of the post focuses on the fact that even when we start with a bad impression and a bad mood we can still have a positive day. Each blog post is about a lesson we learned. That was the lesson that Wells taught us.
Unfortunately, we can only spend a day in each town, and that day is all we get to glimpse the people. We don't pick who we interact with intending to have a bad experience - our film and our comfort depend on us finding the kindness in others. And we are making this film because we feel positively about the country. But, the people we met in Wells were not always so friendly - we had not yet experienced the kind of dismissal that happened frequently there.

You cited rushing as the source of this rudeness, a wedding is an important thing to be on time to, but tone and action speak much louder than words. And even if you are rushing, it's not difficult to say the same words in a nice way. Everyone is an ambassador for where they live - and you represented your city well. But the city manager, the people in the parking lot at the grocery store, they could have been nicer without taking up any more of their time.
I do feel badly about my first paragraph - but as I said, that was our first impression. The dilapidated buildings rarely speak for the people, and I distinguish very carefully appearance and experience. We have visited other communities where our first impressions were rather jarring. And we acknowledge that first impressions are often proven wrong. In other places we've visited we have had amazing experiences despite the first few minutes, and that's what makes an interesting story. Every first impression raises questions about a town - especially in a case like Wells - and we use our interviews to try and answer them. But so much of our project is about people, and this is how people interact all the time. We form an understanding of someone within a few seconds of meeting them; it's through conversation that a person is able to reinforce that understanding or alter it. Only through experience can we begin to understand.

I am from the West. Southern Colorado to be exact and I am very proud of the way that I represent that part of the country and the way that part of the country represents me. In general, I would hope that you would not let your perception of our blog taint your opinion of everyone in a certain group: your assumed Easterners. Your email wants us to see that a few people cannot speak for a whole town, I'd ask you to do the same. I wrote the blog post about Wells; Greg (who is from the East) had no part of it. I tried to write it as honestly as I could - but in a way that would reflect who I am and my opinions. The blog cannot be completely unbiased because it is only my voice; it's a travelogue. This portion of the story is not supposed to be fact (I think both of us have our biases based on our experiences).

We've talked a lot about tone. The way in which someone says something having a huge impact on how we received it. The tone of your email and the words that you chose suggest to me that you are angry and saddened at the way we received your town - but acting hostilely towards us is not the best way help us see your town in a better light.

I want to apologize for making you feel like we did not enjoy our experiences in Wells - we did. It was a day that we learned a lot from. I did not mean to make you feel sad or angry and I would like it if you would allow me to post your letter so that people can see the pride that you have for your town. I think it's a very positive thing that your community came together after the earthquake and I very much appreciated your interview.

I would also like to ask that you support me in wanting to visit Wells in the future. The last line of your email suggested that you never want to see us again; but I would love to give you the opportunity to show us the parts of Wells that you are so fond of. We I have always talked about doing a screening tour with the film, visiting all the communities we initially stayed in and creating a positive dialogue on trust, fear and American culture. We'd love to return and have that conversation.

Thank you for your email, we are always learning and always willing to learn.
We look forward to your response.

Respectfully,
Sarah Sellman and Greg Grano




The thing I keep thinking about is this: Our opinions are just a small part of a larger picture, but also, the way we interact with communities was consistent throughout our travels. Every town had the same opportunity to make a good or bad impression.

And that’s really all it is for now - an impression. I don’t mean that all of our experiences were surface level, but only that the assessments of each community were less than full and thorough – though our experiences with individuals speak towards the character of the place. We got to know the individuals incredible well. I am excited to continue speaking to all of the people we met, to continue creating a solid relationship and maybe eventually visit them again.

And I think I’d like to befriend Wells. There were some pretty friendly people there – some pretty kind hearted strangers, even if the majority of experiences were with people who had strange tones. And even if the letter from the enraged citizen was harsh, they cared enough to write it, so it must be a pretty wonderful place (to them at the very least).

9.01.2010

Well the last couple weeks have been crazy. Sarah was in Colorado; I was mostly in New York, and had intense RA training for two weeks. Our 90 hours of footage all have to be converted into another file format -- and that's finally getting close to done. We're now both settled in New York and classes have started, the beginning of the end of school. We've been meeting with our editing team, and soon we'll be rejuvenating our website discussion and buzz campaign ideas.

"American Bear" flows into my conversations seamlessly. Every time I meet someone new, it weaves its way into conversation within minutes, if not seconds. For example, in a crowded dining hall yesterday I sat down with a young lady -- a stranger. We introduced ourselves, and when she said she was from Dallas, I said, "I've been there. But only for a day." Of course, it's a much longer story than that -- and she asked me all the right questions to hear a pretty solid overview of what "American Bear" is, was, and will be. With everyone that I'm catching up with, people I haven't seen in months, their first question is about this project. There's no escaping it. Not that I'd want to, of course.

And even on my own, while swimming in my own thoughts, it's always there. In my room, I see it externally: my necklace from Jolene in Montana hanging on my wall, a framed photograph from Amber in Idaho propped up on my windowsill. In my head, it's in the infinite memories. In a new class today, we wrote brief biographies for the teacher. I wrote that "American Bear" was the most important and influential experience of my life. And I feel that more as each day passes.

8.14.2010

The Original Return Date

Today was meant to be Day 61 of our trip. We would have had our last night relying on strangers in New York City, then arrived back to my family's house in New Jersey. 60 days had been the timeline from the very beginning -- the perfect length for us to explore the entire country and drive an average of three hours a day. And that final night in New York was meant to be the perfect ending, especially after having heard so much about New York from people we met around the country, many of whom had never been there. It's got a scary reputation, and it's expected that everything moves too quickly for people to be nice. We were confident that we would disprove that.

On Day 39, in Bear, Arkansas, we had our car accident, and when all was said and done, our U-Haul got us home to New Jersey on Day 49, wrapping up our journey. The accident was, of course, very stressful -- but Sarah and I quickly realized that to stay positive, we should focus on the movie. And for the sake of the movie, the car accident was awesome. It couldn't have happened at a better time: we had already captured dozens of hours of fantastic footage, and it was now about 2/3 through the project, the perfect time for a turning point (or an action-packed climax). Nor could it have been a better location: not just one of the five Bears, but literally at the intersection that Mapquest deems the center of Bear, Arkansas. We used the Bears to reflect on what we were learning, what was changing -- we found way more to reflect on in Arkansas that we ever expected.

It's one thing to have the camera to talk about the crash; it's another thing to have footage of the crash. We had the incredible luck of having the camera on when the accident happened, a clip meant to be just us driving around and exploring Bear. We watched it the night after the accident, and haven't watched it since. The camera is facing forward, so the impact isn't seen so much as felt and heard: our escalating voices, the camera shaking every which way upon impact, and the movement coming to a stop seconds later as Sarah starts to cry. Sounds upsetting -- and it is. But if "silver lining" is this footage, we'll take it.

We knew that if we had no solution other than to fly home from Arkansas, our movie would be fine. We had the footage, we had plenty of experiences, and giving in to the drama of the accident would be fine. But instead, we had three days experiencing the kindness of strangers, with our hosts Tom and Becky, and then continued our project in a U-Haul truck for six more days, still visiting another region of the country (Bible Belt and Southeast), another big city (Atlanta), and the last Bear in Delaware. Fittingly, Bear, DE was our last night, and while it's not quite New York, it felt right to be there. We ended up sleeping in the back of the U-Haul in a kind stranger's backyard and leaving at 4am so we could get to my house and surprise my family before they left home at 8am. Our last day, and our first sunrise of the trip.

In the last 12 days, Sarah and I have both been working on plenty of other projects -- it's hard to imagine how we would have felt comfortable preparing for the upcoming semester if we were just getting home now. But while it's been more relaxing than making our project ever was, I can't stop thinking about it. Every day I tell a story from our adventure, I think of a particular host, I look at the necklace Jolene gave me, the whistle Wade made us, and I note the absence of the car from the driveway -- still being repaired in Arkansas. This project has such a huge future ahead of it, and plenty of work involved, but the actual adventure, the countless experiences, those will always be present with me. It's a shame that we didn't get all 60 days, but only because there are friendly people we didn't get to meet. That will always be true. Instead, we got 90 hours of fantastic people, places, conversations, and memories -- including a turning point that we could never have planned, but that provided a different breed of lessons altogether.

8.08.2010

Sarah Reflects on the Weeks of Filming American Bear

The last week has felt so much different.

There is so much to think about and so much to process that I dont even know where to begin. I dont think I've stopped experiencing our adventure and I dont think I'll realize how important was for a long time. And that's simply the personal side of things - the cinematic is going to be something I've never experienced before.

The biggest thing for me is the memories, or the way that anything anybody says reminds my of our time on the road, reminds me of one of our amazing hosts, reminds me of an encounter or a place or a time. And I feel weird talking about it all the time but I dont think I've ever had so many new experiences in such a small period of time. Those six weeks are huge for me, and ever present.

I had never seen the Grand Canyon, never seen Mt. Rushmore, never been to most of the states we visited, never tasted the foods we tasted never had conversations like I had with strangers.

I keep thinking that everyone should do it, everyone should go out and try and help each other and experience new things and get to know strangers. And there's this overwhelming trend that everyone in America thinks that other people are bad, but they themselves are so willing to help. People think that the world is chaotic and dangerous but they as individuals are calm and kind. So there's this inherent sort of contradiction. BUT because everyone is a little nervous, the risk and reward in staying with a stranger, or helping a stranger, is so much greater. It's part of what makes it so rewarding and part of what makes it so interesting. If everyone did that we'd lose that extreme risk and extreme reward. Which sounds a little sad to me. But it also sounds wonderful. What if we could travel that way? Or always feel safe when driving across the country because we know someone will help us if something goes wrong?

That sounds amazing to me.

I want this to show people that we can trust each other. I want that so badly. That was the initially point of my journey. But there is so much more in there - in the details, in the characters in the cultures that are so different. Everyone takes care of people differently, every one's understanding of hospitality is so different. First, we can trust each other. Then we can learn from each other. And at each layer is something different.

Have I changed? Yes. Definitely. I feel a little older, a little wiser, a little less afraid of the world, and maybe a little chubbier from all the pie.

This was a journey through the entire spectrum of my emotions. I think I felt almost everything I've felt before and some amazing brand new feelings.

It was a journey of stories. Everyone, everyone, everyone has a story to tell - a real, human story with real, human drama about real, human things. Beautiful things.
And everyone wants to share it (well almost everyone) - they want to share it with someone special - a stranger is the best candidate because they can't tell your friends, because they will listen openly, because you wont surprise them or confuse them. But the thing about strangers is, after you tell them your stories, they become your friends. Or maybe you only tell them that you are scared to tell them - well that's a pretty big weight, a pretty big secret - a story in itself.

I love that I have new friends all over the country. And that I can call them. Just to talk, to tell them stories.

I think about his everyday. About trust and fear. And the patterns we discovered. There is so much to learn there.

And I feel at a loss for words. Because this was profound for me. And my greatest hope is that it will be profound for someone else who sees it. For everyone else who sees it.

8.03.2010

Greg looks back on the 48 days of American Bear

Yesterday we took a walk with my family’s dog Daisy, down a path near my house, visiting a pretty lake. We passed two people, each of whom were walking dogs as well – as we held Daisy back (she’s not very friendly with her own species), I smiled and spoke to the dog owners, “Hi, how are you – sorry, she’s not very friendly –” and was surprised to get no response from them. Not a word, not a smile. I don’t think they were perturbed by the dogs’ relationship. They just didn’t seem very friendly.

I don’t want to analyze each of my interactions with strangers based on their friendliness. We did that for forty-eight days and I don’t think it’s fair to do in every situation. Maybe I have a sympathetic nature. Every time we got brushed off by someone, and as our statistics built to show 45% of people we approached declined to speak with us, it was easy to describe those experiences as unfriendly. Neither Sarah nor I believe that to be the case – we acknowledge that people are busy, people are shy, people are worried they’ll be asked something that makes them uncomfortable (and asking for a stranger to take us in sure made some people uncomfortable). So we learned a lot about tone.

In Atlanta, dozens of people declined to speak with us, and most were extremely polite about it – surprising given the stigma of unfriendly cities. We didn’t find a place to stay, but we agree that Atlanta was one of our most positive days. We recently got an email from a couple in Wells, Nevada, who had read our blog post about Wells and were fairly enraged. They believed we were biased and rude, and their email was full of venom. In fact, it only furthered our interpretation of Wells, where we met plenty of people who were busy or disinterested, but whose tone made their cold shoulder truly chilling.

And our tone with people was probably the most influential factor in our good luck finding a home. We were always smiling, always friendly. When we were stressed or unconfident, we either had an unsuccessful interview, or we were very grateful that someone else’s energy could lift our spirits too. Our experiments with appearance had almost no direct effect – and although we discussed race with most of our hosts, and heard some racist comments, I think our friendly nature had much more to do with our luck than our white skin. And we often considered the discrepancy between the needy who are deserving versus those who are not deserving – some people didn’t help us because we weren’t deserving, as we were clearly not poor or truly homeless. But many people don’t actually help the homeless because they don’t want to fuel bad habits, including panhandling as a career detour. I hope even a homeless person could have the luck we had, as long as they did it with a smile and clear motivation.

I want to feel more surprised. I think I’ll find surprises while we’re editing – as I grow more distant from our experiences, and as I look at different experiences next to each other, I am sure new lessons and perspectives will arise. After a couple days, it felt so natural to be in a stranger’s home, to be in a new bed, or new floor, around new smells.

But the part of a stranger’s home that I found most interesting was their shower. Something about showering is so much more personal even than sleeping in someone else’s home – maybe the fact that you’re naked. But seriously, every time I showered somewhere else, or was even just offered, it was kind of a rush. And very exciting. Some people have amazing showerheads. But I also had a few stretches of up to four days when I didn’t shower, which hasn’t happened since I was a kid. While four days ended up feeling pretty gross, I think it’s an interesting new comfort level for me. And that’s kind of a goofy example in the context of cleanliness-comfort throughout this project: lack of showering, or staying in a messy home, or sleeping on a floor, or in the car, all of these are a lot less clean than how I normally live my life. My house in New Jersey is extremely clean. I am very comfortable walking around barefoot. My room in New York is cleanish, but I always wear my flip-flops. I am not high-maintenance or hoity-toity, so it wasn’t like a lesson, or a release – but I definitely appreciated living in different environments, if only for a night. This is kind of a silly way of getting to the fact that the messy houses were exciting because they opposed what so many said to us: “I would let you stay, but my house is just a mess right now.”

There is definitely a pressure of hospitality, of being a host, of having guests. Fearing that your guests will be judgmental. Or disappointed? It’s a fair pressure. But a little bit sad. And part of why our messy homes were so comfortable – and even exciting. Those hosts were often the most open. The most comfortable with themselves and with us. I’ve generally considered myself an open person, not much to hide. But many of our experiences have inspired me to be more open. We made seemingly close relationships with a number of the people we stayed with, over the course of just a couple hours. We’ve stayed in touch with some; others, we’ll talk to only about the progress of the movie. The definition of “friend” is very nebulous in the context of our film, because we often refer to our hosts as new friends, even some of our shorter interviews as friends. We also stayed with someone who would outright tell us that we are not friends: for him, it’s a process that takes years. I love the idea of calling people friends after just a couple minutes. Connections aren’t something tangible, they are felt. I believe we can feel the connection of friendship almost instantaneously, and I only believe that because of this project. It’s a feeling that has no age barriers either – we often stayed with people who could be our parents, or grandparents, who have children our age. But to have open conversation, to call them by their first names, to eat a meal with them – it makes the feeling of friendship come alive.

I decided about two years ago that I wanted to wake up just before sunrise every day – I had written to a friend that “a sunrise is the most nutritious breakfast,” but the joke inspired me. I felt more energetic and excited when I started my day when the day really started. But it also only lasted for two months. So now, I want to proclaim that I’ll smile at everyone I see, that I’ll engage in conversation with people at the store, on the street, that I’ll be perpetually open and excited about everyone around me – and while it’s nice to have that attitude, I don’t imagine it being quite as consistent as all that. But more outgoing, more invested and interested in the stories behind the faces around me, those are attitudes that can always be “more,” that I’ve always had, but that I have now in a brand new way, in a directly inspired way.

And when I introduce myself to new people, I have a feeling that this summer will be one of the first things I talk about. It was the most exciting and dynamic experience of my life. Inside and out – personal growth often through public experiences. An adventure of discovery – maybe rediscovery – of broad ideas I had about Americans. Rediscovery because I had some sort of general open optimism and faith in humanity that this project created a solid foundation for. Discovery because I explored the country and a random assortment of its people. And people sure are complex: we’d hear contradictions as people invited us in and later described how much crime there is going around, how they have to fear for their space. Or people who would be incredibly positive about their town, their openness, and then be taken aback when we said we were relying on strangers for a place to stay. We heard a lot of opinions that I don’t agree with: in conversations of politics, or religion, or tolerance, or diversity. But I don’t agree with them in a personal way, and I can appreciate individuals as a bittersweet mixture of positive and negative, respectable and distasteful. I think this summer helped me encounter some of that for myself. Sarah and I had arguments; I rediscovered some of the darker parts of my personality, and regretted some of my words and actions. Halfway through the trip, I had a brief breakdown: frustrated at Sarah, frustrated at the camera, the pressure of filming our experiences, the disappointment of being behind a camera rather than experiencing something firsthand, and above all, frustrated at how this film might portray me. What if I come across as a jerk? What if I’m captured being rude or short with Sarah? What if I’m the cautious, lame so-called “adventurer,” paling in comparison to Sarah’s energy? Strange to be self-conscious while hoping to meet people who are open, who will welcome a camera into their home without warning. Strange to doubt my good nature and personality because a camera is around. But maybe it also made me more sympathetic to the people who decline to be on camera. It’s another contradiction.

This is the first sizeable documentary I’ve ever made. In one of my classes last year, we discussed the potential impossibility of “nonfiction filmmaking.” Documentaries are supposed to present reality, but there’s really no such thing: in an abstract way, nothing is reality but our own minds and our own interpretation of direct experiences. In a more concrete way, there’s no nonfiction in film because people are generally conscious of the camera, conscious of the future audience – and people are usually conscious of what is considered taboo. The racism we encountered was for the most part tangential, mentioned briefly, revised later in the conversation. Everyone wants themselves portrayed positively – everyone wants to be liked. Many people who declined to interview with us probably had this subconscious motivation. Sarah and I discussed our fear of ending up in a house of domestic violence – but everyone knows domestic violence is wrong, and I don’t think we would have ever been invited into such a home, for fear of it being seen. Many people took us in and believed it was simply “the right thing to do.” I bet there are just as many people who think it was the right thing to do, but still said no. We often defy our own morals, and we often don’t treat each other as we’d like to be treated. Our footage captures many people telling personal stories, personal opinions, engaging in personal activities – but where do some of those things lie on the scale of white lies? That goes for the conversations Sarah and I had on camera as well.

And yet one of the most exciting parts about this film, exciting from the planning stages, and most exciting while it was actually happening, is the freedom. Another contradiction, as it was very stressful to be concerned with filming everything, but this is a film without walls. A film in which the camera and the person behind the camera are main characters. A film around the country, inside homes, inside heads, inside beds. The film fueled the adventure, and the adventure fueled the film. Someday, my memories of this summer will be warped into images from the film and stories created by the film, by putting different experiences in conversation with each other. Another way film extends reality. Maybe the most important part is the feeling, just like the way we trust each other and the way we experience friendship hinges on a feeling – I know that this project, this summer, this movie, this adventure, feels pretty damn good.

8.02.2010

American Bear wraps up their journey -- the first stage, at least!


American Bear completed their Journey! (Or at least the first stage)
We left home 49 days ago to do something that sounds simple – rely on strangers for a home each night  –  but what we did feels a lot more complex than that. We traveled around the country, learned about trust and fear between Americans, experienced American culture in a very personal way, and made many new friends. We’ve had tons of new experiences and tried lots of exciting new foods; We’ve learned about ourselves and our relationship and therelationships we form with other people.
We’re now at Greg’s home in New Jersey – the last couple hours of footage transferring to the hard drives, Greg’s mom making lunch.  We slept in a familiar bed last night.
The project was supposed to be 60 days, but we got caught in a bear trap – a car crash that happened at the exact intersection that directions say is the center of Bear, Arkansas. We were both fine, but the car was not drivable. A stranger we contacted via Couchsurfing.org led us, by three degrees of separation, to a couple in Hot Springs, Arkansas, who took us in for three days while we figured out what to do next. We ended up renting a U-Haul truck to drive ourselves home – but for the six days that the rental allowed, we continued making our project, dipping into the south and even visiting the eastern shore – or at least the Chesapeake Bay.
So our project was cut short, but we still went through exactly 30 states and visited the 5 places called Bear. We relied on strangers for 40 of our 48 nights – we had one break night, two nights with Sarah’s family in Colorado, and the 5 Bears, where we camped, stayed in a motel, or, for our last night in Bear, Delaware, slept in the back of the U-Haul. We stayed with strangers for 36 of those 40 nights, only failing to find a host in four towns.
In total, we spoke with 711 people around the country. 55% of those people agreed to do an interview with us, and 7% of all those people offered us a place to stay. Of all the people who offered us a place to stay, 51% were male, and 49% were female – the same percentages we discovered at our 30-day update. However, of all the people we spoke to, 47% were male and53% were female, suggesting that women said no to us slightly more often than men. Another interesting fact: If you recall our 30 day update, about 47% of people declined an interview. After our experiences in the South that number is down to 45%; In the two weeks we spent in the South the number of people who agreed to interview was raised by 2.5%.
We stayed with families, grandparents, single men, single mothers, college students, and retired couples. We spoke with people of a wide variety of races and backgrounds, but the majority of the people we stayed with were white and Christian – a tendency that may represent the communities we visited rather than a label of hospitable people.
Every day we spoke with dozens of strangers, on and off camera. Every day, we woke up knowing where we were headed, and nothing else – where we went within a town, who we met, and what adventures we would experience on our own or with our hosts, were all surprises. Every day was completely fresh, as were all the personalities we discovered.
We began this project feeling optimistic about Americans – a friendly, welcoming, and fascinating culture. In our 48 days, our optimism was not only proved correct, but expanded exponentially. Even when we slept in our car, it was after talking to many friendly people and learning about interaction, culture, and kindness. We started with a theoretical faith in the goodness of people and ended with an actual one.
What’s next? In the next couple days, we will each post a personal reflection on the blog –BearDocumentary.blogspot.com. We are beginning to compile our footage, organize it, and create outlines for the structure of the finished film. Soon, we will have a richer website, and we’ll definitely let you know when that happens. And in approximately a year, we will have a film that shows 49 days, the best of 100 hours of footage, and hundreds of Americans, through the lens of two young adventurers and an unbiased camera.
Thank you so much for your interest in our project – whether we met you in the last two months, whether we stayed in your home, whether you supported us months ago – you have made this entire project possible, and you have been essential in representing the kindness of Americans.
Sincerely,
Greg and Sarah

7.31.2010

American Bear visits Cape Charles, Virginia

Lexington, South Carolina was old, Cape Charles, Virginia was older.

And it felt old.

It felt sea washed. Everything colored like ocean spray and bleached by the sun.

Greg was going to do the approach alone thing. While I sat in a café and worked through his resume, my resume, details for the upcoming month.

But the drive there ended up being almost 8 hours. With traffic and pit stops, we were late and Greg was exhausted. He decided to try going out despite this. Brave boy.

My stomach was hurting from trying the biscuits at Bojangles. So was his.

I sat at the computer, sent out a couple emails, did some virtual organizing, ate a piece of peach pie and chatted with the people walking in to try and find us a home as well.

After forty minutes Greg came back, exhausted from a long conversation with young people at the local bar. He said he felt like he had to try so hard to grab their attention. That he wanted to stay with people who weren’t going to be out partying all night.

So we built the camera and headed toward the beach.

Most people were visitors, but eventually we stumbled onto some locals. A very interesting guy invited us to stay at his squatter house. He said he couldn’t be sure when he’d be home but the door was always unlocked and we could visit whenever we wanted. He gave us directions. He was super friendly, but had plans for the night. Then we met another young guy from the area, he was having a major party at his place and we could come party, and sleep there. When I mentioned release forms, he said he’d have people sign em at the door. Smart. But really… not the best place for fancy equipment.

We told both the boys we’d let them know, that their offers were very generous, but we wanted to keep exploring. As we headed down to the beach we walk bust a very cheerful young man who told us we had just missed the dolphins swimming by as the sun was setting.

We tried to speak with other people but eventually ended up at the end of the beach, talking to that same boy – Stuart for almost 45 minutes about his adventures traveling around this summer.

We told him our story and we got our most enthusiastic yes ever – from an 18 year old whose family was visitng for the week.

He took us home. His younger sister, Caitlin, made us a DELICIOUS salad. His two youngest sisters Brigid and Maureen told us stories, offered us ice cream and kept asking us to watch Elf with them – which we happily did eventually. When his parents came home they were surprised to see us, but distracted by a small vehicle emergency.

We watched the movie, ate some popcorn and chatted with the girls.
Maureen fell asleep and had to be escorted up the stares to bed twice. She came back down after brushing her teeth and going to the bathroom to fall asleep in the room we were all in. Stuart carried her back.

I slept in the extra bedroom on a futon with the tech stuff, Greg was on the couch with the AC (which was so COLD, but he LOVED it).

In the morning Brigid and Greg walked together on a hot chocolate run.

It felt so comfortable, something I am only realizing fully now. We were sort of instantly insiders. Nobody said make yourself at home – but we almost had to. I don’t know why this happened at all. I keep thinking it had to do with Brigid and Maureen and their comfort with us. But also the way weren’t exciting to them as strangers, but rather just someone to sit with and watch a movie. Someone to tell stories to, but not someone to fight over. I felt fine grabbing a blanket from the other room when I was cold, and getting a glass of water. Maybe it was because their family sort of functioned like mine – just a little chaotically.

But it was a great night – and an even better morning.

I think I like getting to know people. Which I suppose is obvious. But I like the conversation that starts to come so easily after doing an interview. I love sharing stories. Listing to Stuart and Mrs. Hickey talk about the ways in which they help strangers and why caused a lot of discussion

After we talked some more Brigid and Maureen ran into the yard with teddy bears – our presents had been discovered! They helped Greg load the car and when Brigid asked for another bear, he gave her one – naming her two Sarah and Greg.

It was awesome.

American Bear visits Lexington, North Carolina

Lexington doesn’t feel old. But it is.

It felt like a place that had recent become a lot slower than it used to be. It was sort of still sweating after a race. And maybe it didn’t win.

Everyone was friendly. Super friendly. I think I beginning to accept that as a normal thing for the places we visit in the South. Finding a home is more difficult, but finding a friendly smile takes only a few seconds. I think about the morning after our night – we stopped at IHOP at 7am and after eating (we had the most friendly waitress since Julie in Bonner’s Ferry) I held the door open for a family coming in. They all, one at a time, turned to me, smiled and said “Good morning, thank you so much.”

But rewind.

We started downtown after an interview with the executive director of the homeless shelter, Gayle. Gayle was super friendly and super empathetic. She had made taking care of people her biggest responsibility, possibly her biggest joy.

Everyone in town was friendly but most had fallen on hard times. We talked to a man who had taken in a friends young daughter to lessen their economic struggle; we talked to a woman who believed that no one else could take care of her, that it was her responsibility to take of herself and no one else; we met a man who talked openly about his sadness at work in a deli rather than making furniture, what he was trained to and enjoyed doing. Everyone seemed to be helping each other.

The first few people declined an interview – but nicely, or at the least not rudely.

We stopped at a country store – one that had been in town for almost 100 years. The local favorite was cheese pimento salad. As we interviewed the manager, then the owner, everyone who came in was buying it. It was bright orange and kind of scary looking, but my curiosity was spiked. So we bought some.

My thoughts: Bleck. And my stomach complained for the rest of the night.

I don’t want to insult a local favorite, but it was just not my style. It was a mushy sort of paste made from mayonnaise, American cheese, sugar and pimentos. A sort of egg salad made of American cheese, but sweet. Thought: If egg salad and jello salad had offspring. Plus cheese.

No one in the store could help us so we decided that we would stop at the Japanese restaurant (A Japanese restaurant? Here?) before heading back to the homeless shelter to chat with a few residents.

That’s where we met Dan, Jimmy and Doug. We walked into the bar and the red walls were covered in a patchwork of paintings. The Shins were playing.

We chatted with the guys for a bit and then Doug – in a half round about way – invited us to stay with him for the night.

Doug was reading a book about zombies after we returned from the homeless shelter. He talked a little bit about racing – citing his home in Milwaukee as responsible. He talked to Greg and I about shows he’d seen.

We talked about performance art and Karen Finley and we contemplated buying some art. The artist, Stewart Knight came by later – check out his work here on Myspace.

It was a very pleasant and entertaining evening. In someways it felt almost weird to be hanging out with people my own age (older, I suppose, but…) again.

That night, we did an interview with Doug. Who told us that he didn’t like facebook because it created false friendships and he described the forming of friendships as a lengthy process. When I asked him to tell us part of his story he explained that we hadn’t earned it yet, that it would be unfair to the people he calls friends, the people who spent the time earning those stories, if he shared with us, and with an audience.

It’s tough for me to explain Doug. Because I think in many ways he was my opposite. He understands that he is guarded and he uses that word – but for him its positive. I am open with everyone, and he is closed. Not rude, or harsh; not the regular connation of those words. He was friendly, just private.

When we asked him why he took us in, it was sort of a mixed thing. He thought of himself last when he went through his list, realizing all of his friends were working super late, had children or no space. He seemed to think of himself as a last resort, and he wasn’t really hesitant, just logical. He said, “I couldn’t lie. I had so much space, “ also, “It was to weird to be bad.” We often wonder if people are making up excuses, or suggesting that in order to carefully avoid us as strangers.

He believed that life experience creates suspicion. That we are born trusting, as children we want to be everyone’s friend. But that experience teaches us how to distrust.

7.30.2010

American Bear Visits Atlanta!

Atlanta, Georgia - Is Southern Hospitality really a Myth?
We didnt find a home in Atlanta. I'll tell you that right now.

But we did have an amazing day. We met so many fascinating people.

It was a fast approach day. That means once we get someone to consent to an interview we tell them what we are doing and ask them if they can help us. Then if they are friendly and up for it we follow up by asking all the usual questions.

Everyone had a pretty cynical understanding of trust - we met only a few who seemed to think the world was going to be okay. Jim, a stranger who invited us to see his show at a "creepy David Lynch, Rob zombie bar" with "cheap, strong drinks" and probably would have offered us his floor if he wasn't crashing with a friend himself, said "When you can trust someone, that's when you are truly alive, when you can trust the world. When you can't, you start dying."

"Is the rest of the country trusting?"

"No, not really."

"So do you think we're all dying?"

"A little bit. A little bit."

He said the Southern Hospitality was just a nice way of saying back handed. "Where I come from we shoot people between the eyes, in Atlanta, in the south, they shoot em in the back."

Another man suggested that maybe the hospitality becomes innate. That kindness is habitual even when you don't like somebody. So that makes it seem like a facade, but its not.

But everyone agreed that people in the south are somehow different. I don't know that I felt that really - maybe in the thank yous I got from holding open the door for someone or in the courtesy with which people declined an interview. But that didnt feel all that different from Ohio, except for the drawl.

We met so many friendly people - Atlanta is a beautiful city and I never felt put out, I was never treated rudely - but we ended up without a home.

American Bear visits Tupelo, Missippi

Tupelo, Mississippi - Our first lesson in Southern Hospitality.


We've been arriving late every day of our journey - late meaning no earlier than 4pm. With the time changes working against us, the five hour drives and the necessity of experiencing the occasional tourist oriented peach farm, waffle house or panoramic view 4 has become our new earliest start time.


So we arrived in Tupelo at 4 - We had to television interviews scheduled. Our first, with Julie, happened just after we parked the car. As she was tailing us in her car (lucky her, air conditioning would have been amazing), we ran into our first strangers. Brock and Scott. And of course Scott's sweet dog, Belle.


They said yes the second they heard the question and Scott got really excited about having an amazing interview later that night with his roommate Eric, his friend who is a poet by nature, not trade, and a few other friends. And so did we.


The guys mentioned southern hospitality without so much as a hint. "Its just another way of living, " they explained to us, "People here are just raised better."


After we asked our big question, Scott jumped at the opportunity to walk us to his house just a few blocks away from downtown. So we all trotted down there. On the way Scott asked "You guys are clean right?" We nodded, no drugs here. "I am a recovering addict, so I always ask, just to be safe." Brock nodded, "Me too." It was amazing that they were so open and so clear about what was allowed in their home.


When we got back to the house Jennifer was sitting on the couch. Scott said teasingly, "She's a Yankee too, you guys ought to get along." Jennifer was from Wisconsin. It's amazing for me to be able to connect to so many people on the basis of place. Just knowing where someone is from is an easy way to form a connection. And perhaps I feel more that way because hardly anyone knows where I am from, but there is something really cool about being able to say "Yeah! I've been there." or "Yeah, I drove through there on my way across the state." So Jennifer and I bonded over Wisconsin.


Then we had to go to our other interview. Our interviewer, Chad, had a full time job at the local Baptist news station and a part time job for the company that he was making our piece for. He was super friendly, energetic and excitable. He didnt fail to remind us that we were in the bible belt, that people might not take so kindly to the idea of us sharing a bed.


We went back to Scotts, ready for whatever they had planned. We ordered pizza, talked more, watched a movie. Scott kept calling me "darlin" and we talked about the southern drawl. Brock and Scott both agreed that the people on TV never get it right.


The evening interview was amazing as promised - even when it was interrupted by some very drunk friends doing impressions of a Mississppi stereotype. Both Chad the interviewer, Scott our host and his friend Nick with a jiggle in his shoes seemed to think that the rest of the world thought that everyone in Mississippi was a shoeless hillbilly or hick. Greg and I laughed at that. Perhaps we were fortunate to miss that somewhere along the line, but it sure was amazing to see the impression. Especially for me because Nick took his shoes off behind my chair as I was filming and came out with his pants rolled up.


Scott kept referring to himself as country (adjective not noun) and when Greg asked what that meant to him, he hesitated. Someone offered up, "hick" and he didn't like that much. He said, "maybe its slower." In my understanding, being country just means your lifestyle is different, you were raised a little bit differently than the rest of the world (but aren't we all?) - maybe its the roots of Southern Hospitality, a sort of pride in your culture.


Brock seemed to get a little frustrated at the way the interview shifted into mayhem. And yes, I was a little disappointed that we didn't get to explore more of those ideas, but I don't think I've seen Greg laugh so hard during our entire trip.


Brock went to bed early, he was starting his new job at 6am. Scott fell asleep on the couch and Eric, Greg and I stayed up watching a movie.


It was a wonderful night. Totally American - and totally a lesson.


As Scott tiptoed off to bed a little later, he turned to me "G'night Darlin'".

7.28.2010

American Bear's Time in Hot Springs

Let me tell you about Tom and Becky.

Tom and Becky came to us from nowhere. Or rather, through a distant connection.
We had originally intended on going to Fayetteville the day after our accident. In Fayetteville, we had arranged one of our few couch surfing nights. Philip, our host for our evening in Fayetteville made some calls for us when we called to cancel. He called a friend whose parents lived in Hot Springs - those parents: Becky and Tom.

So our stranger for the night called a friend who called her parents and we had a phone call from Tom asking what he could do to help.

Greg told him our dilemma - we have no way to drive, no room to stay in and no place to go.

He said - I'll come pick you up in fifteen minutes.

Tom and Becky fed us (most nights delicious vegetarian food), housed us, let us print new directions, do our laundry, swim in their pool, use their internet. They took us on a boat ride on the lake, we got to play music together - a small recital of sorts.

This was a totally unique situation, because for the first time, we NEEDED help. For the first time we didn't have a car to sleep in.

It was kind of a break - but filled with phone calls and organization; planning and trying to figure out how we were going to get home.

After three days with them we felt much better. And now we had the resources to go and the arrangements all lined up.

So with a hug, we said goodbye.