Words by Lauren Levy
Photos courtesy of Greg Grano & Sarah Sellman
Two Syracuse residents traveled cross-country, counting on strangers to take them in each night. Now, they and several SU students are working to turn their experiences into a full documentary
It all started with a dream. “Let’s go to Bear, Colorado!” Greg Grano excitedly shouted in his sleep, waking up Sarah Sellman, his partner of a year and a half at the time. So they decided to go. The trip was a random idea that felt like destiny to the couple, which was looking to make a documentary with an inspiring topic. But their excitement quickly deflated when they discovered that Bear, Colo., did not exist. There are only Bears in Washington, Idaho, Arizona, Arkansas, and Delaware.
“Bringing kindness home to their own communities is a great factor that students can learn while away at school, and who knows where it could spread from there.”
-Tina Lin, American Bear Productions marketing intern
Gazing at the map, they saw the geographical “U” that connected all the country’s “American Bears,” and that initial enthusiasm flooded back. From January 2010 through June 2010, Grano and Sellman worked to develop the idea of conducting a social experiment that involved making the journey to the five Bears and catching it all on camera, with the intention of turning it into a feature-length documentary — American Bear: An Adventure in the Kindness of Strangers. Grano and Sellman, who relied on the kindness of strangers to put a roof over their heads each night, wanted to see how people would treat them.
“Sarah and I are both optimistic about people,” says Grano, an assistant residence director in Syracuse University’s Office of Residence Life. “Part of the film was us hoping we would have positive experiences to be able to show, ‘Look, you know, if you go out with a positive attitude you might just encounter some positivity in return.’ ”
Tina Lin, a junior English and textual studies major, has been a marketing intern for American Bear Productions, the group of people Grano and Sellman have put together to produce their film, since July. Lin is dedicated to promoting the documentary because she appreciates the ideas it advocates. “Since the Iraq War, a lot of individuals around the world have seen Americans as something cold or callous,” Lin says. “With the film, it really promotes this theme that we are not like that at all, and as individuals we are all human beings who have kind hearts.”
Lin thinks it’s important to learn about the issues facing the Syracuse area and then to try to address them. What the area really needs, by Lin’s diagnosis, is a helping hand, or maybe even just a pat on the back. That fits with what Sellman and Grano’s organization tries to accomplish through the “Kindness Captured” events it has helped create.
Kindness Captured is one of several events in Sellman’s initiative, which she describes as “interactive events that involve community members interacting with strangers on a hopefully personal level.” One round of events took place on June 30 in Syracuse; Boston; New York City; Dallas; Seattle; and Richmond, Va. Syracuse was included in the list because the couple recently moved here, after Grano took a job at SU.
At the start of each event, volunteers are given “kindness kits” containing 14 missions, a list of different locations around the city they’re in, and all of the items needed to complete the tasks. The missions could be anything from buying a stranger a popsicle with a sweet note on a hot day to offering cupcakes and compliments out on the streets.
The June Kindness Captured event in Syracuse drew 75 participants. Another event scheduled for September was postponed due to rain. Grano and Sellman are currently developing a winter-friendly event that would let SU students become involved as soon as possible.
Sellman’s goal in creating the new event is to link community and students on a personal level. “I know there are a lot of community connections on a university level,” Sellman says. “But I think the students themselves are not as connected to the community, and I would like to create an event that would allow students or community members to create something kind together.”
Grano and Sellman found kindness in abundance on the road. The two, who traveled from July through August 2010, filming their experiences throughout 30 states for 49 days, brought along a tent in case people didn’t warm up to the idea of strangers spending the night in their home. But they found they didn’t need the tent very often — on 38 of the 48 nights, complete strangers welcomed Grano and Sellman into their homes. Those new acquaintances did not just open up their houses. They also opened their lives to a filming camera.
Grano describes the experience as very interesting because, throughout the process, the couple learned why people decided to even welcome them into their homes. The film explored face-to-face interaction and how people get comfortable with strangers.
It only took one woman a few hours of chatting to completely become comfortable with the couple’s stay. An initial hesitant agreement to let the couple camp in her yard transformed into her not only allowing them stay inside with her and her husband, but also opening up to them. She had just lost her daughter two weeks before, but felt a sense of ease in divulging her pain to the newcomers.
“The way that people ended up sharing a lot of personal details with us was incredible,” Grano says. “Part of it was we were asking questions and inviting their stories, but I think a lot of what we learned from the experience is that people have these stories that they want to share, and I think sometimes they just don’t know who wants to listen.”After getting into a car accident that they caught on tape, being rejected by more than 55 people in a day on several occasions, spending a few nights camping or sleeping in the car, and making the pilgrimage to all five Bears in America, they had all the footage they needed.
“We did all of the camerawork ourselves, which we think creates an interesting tone to the film, because you always know it is either me or Sarah holding that camera,” Grano says.
But Grano and Sellman took much more than a totaled car and footage for an intriguing documentary from the experience. After witnessing overwhelming kindness and generosity, the two were left grappling with the fact that they may not be helping others in the same way. “Are we giving back?” was a common question as both grappled with the ethics of what they were doing.
And then inspiration hit again. “We wanted to be more active about helping others ourselves,” Grano says. That resulted in Sellman collaborating with others from around the country to create Kindness Captured.
The message of both American Bear and Kindness Captured is to spread positivity that will resound with people. The hope is that SU students will not only bring the good spirit back to campus with them, but also take it in their own direction.
“We need to get the students involved, because they all come from different years and different places,” Lin says. “Bringing kindness home to their own communities is a great factor that students can learn while away at school, and who knows where it could spread from there.”
I think a lot of what we learned from the experience is that people have these stories that they want to share, and I think sometimes they just don’t know who wants to listen.
-Greg Grano, assistant residence director, SU Office of Residence Life