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Dennis Perkins

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his lovely wife, the writer Emily L. Stephens, and their cat, Cooper. When not watching all the movies ever made or digging up stories about the Maine film scene, he can be found writing for the AV Club and elsewhere. The rest of the time, he's worrying about the Red Sox.

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Posted: July 27, 2015

Filmmakers asks total strangers to stay overnight in their house, ‘American Bear’ examines that experience

Written by: Dennis Perkins
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Of the many ways to determine whether people are basically decent, just asking a total stranger if you can stay in his/her house is one of the most telling. Not only because of the generosity involved, but also because of the trust—asking someone you don’t know for a free bed can accurately gauge what an individual thinks of people in general. That’s just one of the lessons learned by documentarians Sarah Sellman and Greg Grano while filming their movie “American Bear,” which saw the two NYU film students spending 60 days driving through 30 states and asking complete strangers if they’d put the duo up for the night. According to Grano, the experience confirmed their views about the basic goodness of people—even as it forced them to confront their own preconceptions.

“Sarah and I are both fairly optimistic people,” explains Grano, “We tend to think about how, essentially, there are a lot of forces, like the media, that encourage us to be afraid of the person around the corner, on the other side of the world. People can be pretty good. So we set out to travel around country for two months relying on the kindness of strangers. Honestly, it exceeded expectations.”

In organizing their trip, the pair (who share a personal as well as professional relationship), relied on a little subconscious inspiration as well. “I talk in my sleep, and one night I woke up saying, ‘We have to go to Bear, Colorado!’ Unfortunately, there is no Bear, Colorado. But there are five other towns in America called Bear and they form a perfect U-shape around the country, so we mapped the trip around them. We used our days in the Bears more like landmarks or checkpoints where we spent time talking together about what we were learning.”

As to the core of the documentary, the pair varied their approach (sometimes setting up their camera in a public place and letting people come to them, other times asking more directly), but they almost always found a home. (They did have to sleep in their car a few nights.) Talking with their hosts afforded them the opportunity not only to speak about the reasons why they were willing to accept strangers into their homes, but to let their benefactors share things about their lives. It was an enriching experience, says Grano, but one that forced he and Sellman to examine the reasons behind the generosity they encountered as well.

“Our trust in people was strengthened,” he explains, “but we also learned a lot about how naïve we were, especially about our own privilege. We’re both white, young, college students who looked like we were in a heterosexual relationship, and that had a lot to do with the kinds of people who trusted us. Some said we seemed familiar, or that we reminded them of their kids, which are really coded comments—not everyone looks like somebody’s kids. We came to understand that someone who didn’t look like us would have had a different experience—some people who helped us wouldn’t have been as helpful with everybody.”

The film, available on DVD at americanbearfilm.com, has played at several festivals, and Sellman and Grano have accompanied it on a screening tour around the country, answering questions at arthouse theaters and schools. Also—in an opportunity Maine filmmakers should check out—they’ve teamed with unique crowdsourcing site Tugg which looks to bring “American Bear” to the big screen at the Cinemagic theater in South Portland on Thursday.

The big screen experience is something indie filmmakers often miss out on, but the Tugg model waits for someone in the community (as someone in Portland did) to request a showing of one of the films Tugg represents. Then a screening is set up, with the venue, Tugg, and the filmmakers splitting the ticket revenue. It’s a neat idea for low-budget filmmakers to bring their movies to a theatergoing audience, but one that requires support—as of this writing, the “American Bear” screening hadn’t yet pulled in the 80 presold tickets to ensure its place at Cinemagic. But here’s hoping the people of Portland showed the filmmakers the same support they found on the road making their movie.

COMING TO LOCAL SCREENS

Nickelodeon Cinema
Friday: “The Stanford Prison Experiment.” Billy Crudup stars in this recreation of the notorious, real-life psychological experiment that went a long way toward showing how even the smallest power can turn people into fascists. Two teams of college students are pitted against each other in a prison scenario—one team the prisoners, the other the guards—and things get quickly out of control.

Frontier (Brunswick)
Thursday to Sunday: “The Wolfpack.” In this buzzed-about documentary, a group of adult siblings, locked away in their tenement house by their unstable parents know the world only through movies. Reenacting their favorite films with homemade props, the siblings’ isolated existence is gradually opened up when one of the brothers decides to leave.

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