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December 05, 2016
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Sullivan County ‘strangers’ help launch documentary

Sellman films Grano.

ROSCOE, NY — What would you do if two total strangers came into your town, approached you on the street, began asking questions about the place where you live and then said they were looking for a night’s lodging?

That’s what Sarah Sellman, now 22, and Greg Grano, 21, did when they embarked on a journey in June 2010 to explore trust, fear and hospitality across America and between Americans. The initiative provided the basic framework for the film which they are now trying to finalize, “American Bear: An Adventure in the Kindness of Strangers.”

In the summer of 2010, armed with little but curiosity and a camera, Sellman and Grano traveled the country relying on the kindness of strangers for a home each night. Every day they were in a new town, meeting new people, and hoping that someone would be generous enough to open their home to two young strangers.

“I was expecting people to be more nervous than they were,” said Sarah. “But we’re both a little chubby, with curly hair and dimples, and we’re non-threatening, which helped. And we focused on learning about them. People want to talk; they want to share their deepest stories and be heard.”

As fate would have it

It all began a year earlier, when Greg spoke out in his sleep, saying “We have to go to Bear, Colorado!” After discovering that Bear, CO doesn’t exist, the couple instead defined a loop which included visits to five places named Bear in America. The trip would take them through 30 states, where they spoke with 711 people and were provided lodging for all but four of the nights.

Sellman and Grano spent the first day of their journey exploring Roscoe and meeting folks who now appear in the film’s trailer. Allowing fate to unfurl their course, they landed in Roscoe following a Google search meant to take them roughly four hours from their home base in Morristown, NJ toward the first “Bear” in Washington.

That night, they were hosted by Joe Modica, a Reiki practitioner (depicted in fourth photo from top at left).

“We tried to pick towns of various sizes and personalities, and Roscoe worked well,” said Sellman “All of our towns were great experiences. And in Roscoe we met our Tiresias—Joe Modica.”

In the film’s trailer, Modica prophesies, “You’re going to be directed and guided to people that are going to affect you in the most profound ways, so this whole journey is already mapped out. You’re living the American dream.”

The pair stayed with families, grandparents, single men, single mothers, college students and retired couples. “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.”

What they found

Along the way, the couple discovered that kindness is alive and well in America, hiding around every corner of every small town and big city across the country, despite common perceptions to the contrary. They found that while the world as a whole can seem chaotic and dangerous, individuals are often calm and kind.

The film paints a portrait of Americans as a community and “the questions we all have about the people who aren’t us and the places that aren’t our homes.” It captures a range of stories from the daughter of the last warrior woman of the Cheyenne mountain tribe whose grandson is still facing bigotry in South Dakota, to the twice-married ghost hunters trying to synthesize their experiences in small-town New York, to young friends in Mississippi trying to understand the “country” stereotype and maybe even reclaim it.

The film draws a hopeful conclusion, despite a marker event in Bear, AR that tested their relationship and delivered a new perspective as the couple grappled with the outcome of a car accident. Perhaps not surprisingly, a stranger helped them through again when the pair sought a solution through www.Couchsurfing.org, an online tool for connecting through travel.

They were led to a couple in Hot Springs, AR who provided three nights’ lodging for the temporarily stranded pair. As fate would have it, the couple’s camera happened to be on when the crash occurred.

On their website, the couple cites openness and vulnerability as a means to overcoming hopelessness.

“We strive to make a documentary that will create a very specific kind of hope. A hope that doesn’t have to work against the odds, but rather one that suggests that in the end the odds are in our favor. We wish to foster the power of the individual as the greatest resource for generating change in the world, starting with a simple act of kindness.”

One thing they discovered is that most people are willing to give if you seem to need it, especially those who have little to begin with, like the Idaho family with 12 people living in a three-bedroom house. “People have different levels of comfort with what it means to be hospitable,” said Sellman. “Many had less to give than the average person, but they believe that whatever you have, you share.”

The couple began the project feeling mostly optimistic about Americans. “Our optimism was not only proved correct, but expanded exponentially,” they contend.

“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.”

“Most of what we see in the news or on the Internet is negative,” said Sellman. “But there are at least as many positive stories out there. Everyone has a story to tell—a real, human story with real, human drama about real, human things. Beautiful things.” She adds, “The thing about strangers is, after you tell them your stories, they become your friends.”

Visit americanbearfilm.com/about for more information or to see the trailer. Sellman can be reached at 719/480-0759 or snsellman@gmail.com.

Don’t be a stranger
“American Bear” is currently in post production, as the couple has embarked on the new challenge of raising funds to complete the documentary. Utilizing an online crowdfunding kickstarter website to launch their campaign, the couple is counting, once again, on the kindness and generosity of strangers. With a January 21 deadline to raise $9,000, (more than $5,000 has been pledged so far), they are asking for pledges of support. Visit kck.st/uHYJ3s to become a friend.

The filmmakers describe themselves
Greg Grano grew up in Morristown, NJ, and recently graduated from New York University. Throughout his life, he has explored ways to translate emotions and stories into art: through classical music, songwriting and filmmaking. Grano’s films have always involved unique relationships between people, stories driven by fate or coincidence, beautiful images and an underlying optimism and hope for humanity. In his spare time, Greg has always been an explorer, enjoying long walks, hikes and road trips (mostly with Sarah). “American Bear” is his first documentary, and beyond that, the greatest experience of his life, blending his passion for adventure, filmmaking, people, and expanding all those ideas together with America and kindness—basically, it was phenomenal, and he can’t stop thinking about it, and telling stories about it, and wondering how and where to do this experiment again. Outside of all that, Greg loves pineapple, unique vegetarian food, playing the ukulele and wearing bright colors.
Sarah Sellman grew up in a bed and breakfast in a desert valley in rural Alamosa, CO. Her experiences there made her a strange sort of six year old—she has always loved talking to strangers. Her experiences in Colorado fostered her need for adventure and her ability to tell stories. So she ventured off to New York City where she attended film school at NYU. Sarah loves telling stories about people, textures and beautiful landscapes—sometimes with a hint of the surreal or fantastical and always about love and fortuity (her mother was a fan of romantic comedies and her dad had her watching sci-fi since she could speak). “American Bear” turned Sarah’s hypothetical trust in all people to an actual one and has been one of the greatest learning experiences of her life. Sarah is detail-oriented, texture-obsessed and curious about everything. Oh, and she really likes pie.