What Happens When You Film Strangers' Journal Entries For the World to See?
The Strangers Project, a traveling art exhibition that lets you intimately experience the lives of strangers, is being made into a movie.
In art, as in life, intimacy can be a hard-won battle. Like a kaleidoscope, the human experience is infinitely varied; within those variations, patterns emerge that connect us all. But only one person can look into the complex eye of a kaleidoscope at a time.
"Without even realizing it, reality falls away. All that exists is the story in front of them."
The Strangers Project aims to transcend the limits of subjectivity by laying the human experience bare—patterns, variations, and all—through the intimacy of strangers. For the past seven years, founder Brandon Doman has set up public exhibitions of journal entries written by strangers. He asks people to write anonymously about anything they want—as long as it's true. The letters are raw, honest, vulnerable, and extremely profound. They span the spectrum of the human spirit, from its darkest corners of loss, despair, fear, discrimination—and even murder—to its joys of youth, love, inspiration, openness, and gratitude. Reading these stories feels like the closest one can get to entering another person's soul.
It's ironic, then, that such an emotionally accessible art exhibition is physically inaccessible to most of the world. Over the years, this limitation has weighed on Doman, who aspires to share these 20,000 some stories with a global audience. That's why he decided to make a documentary.
Here's an example of one journal entry:
I am 16 years old, American, Muslim, Pakistani parents, cover my hair. Sometimes people ask me if I have hair, or if I “shower with that on,” or if my dad can see my hair. Sometimes I am a poster child even if I didn’t sign up for it. Sometimes when I go to the airport they pat me down, and sometimes it makes me cry. It’s okay though, part of the job description. Muslims are the new gays who are the new blacks who are the new Irish who are the new Italians who are the new women who are the new slaves. 16 year old girls have been brought to tears for generations for hundreds of years by some guy who thinks he’s real tough. They all come out stronger in the end. I want to be stronger too.
And no, I don’t shower with it on. Obvi-duh.
P.S. Stop staring at the girl at the grocery store who covers her hair. Say hi instead. Her life is a series of awkward moments as it is. Awkward moments, and too many clothes.
"Everything that I do through the project is face-to-face," Doman told No Film School. "None of the 20,000 and growing stories come from being mailed in or sent in online. That means I get to have literally tens of thousands of these incredible interactions with all sorts of different people while I'm collecting stories...I want people to see this other side of the project in the documentary, the interactions and ad hoc community-building that it creates."
To make the Strangers Project film, Doman has partnered with producing and directing team Taylor Nagel and Jess Vogel to travel America, stopping at over 25 cities and towns with the exhibition and film crew in tow. "The film is going to follow the tour," said Nagel. "We made a symbiotic relationship."
With the traveling documentary, the team hopes to capture the experience of both collecting the stories and reading them. "We hope to recreate the experience in a new medium," said Vogel. "What's really fascinating about the Strangers Project is that in person, people stop. They become so engrossed. Time and space is suspended. Then, without even realizing it, reality falls away. All that exists is the story in front of them. That's what we want for the film."
To retain the element of anonymity, the team intends to employ a combination of footage from the tour, letters read in voiceover, and intricate animations that vary in style according to the tenor of the story. "We want to be able to give people that freedom to share their story without necessarily having to be on camera themselves, so using animation helps to abstract from that person specifically," explained Nagel. "By working with a variety of animators and illustrators, we're also democratizing the process and the interpretation, so it's not a singular vision or just the two of us picking the ones that we like the most."
Vogel echoed this sentiment. "It's really important to us that we can capture the different cultural pockets of the country as are reflected in the stories that we're sharing," she said. "We are interested in working with folk artists as much as graffiti artists as much as mural artists. It's that diversity of thought and spirit that is essential to this project. We welcome anybody and everybody that wants to participate."
"New York is a very film-friendly place. It's pretty typical to see shooting all the time. I think we're going to be entering parts of the country where maybe that doesn't happen every day."
The Strangers Project will receive fiscal sponsorship from the New York Foundation for the Arts, which also sponsored Netflix's Making a Murderer. (The organization accepts tax-deductible donations on the project's behalf.) But there are many challenges still ahead. To close the gap in the budget, the project also has to meet its Indiegogo campaign goals. And, of course, there are matters of production organization as the team traverses two-dozen cities, each with a different sense of openness to the project.
"I think it will be a bit of a traveling circus," said Vogel. "We're going to have to roll with the punches."
For her part, Nagel has some concerns about bringing the exhibition and film crew to towns far less accustomed to traveling circuses than New York. "We're setting up in new places and interacting with new communities every day," she said. "New York is a very film-friendly place. It's pretty typical to see shooting all the time. I think we're going to be entering parts of the country where maybe that doesn't happen every day."
"Hopefully everyone is welcoming," she continued. "I think what Brandon has expressed is that, in the past, almost everywhere he's been, people have been very welcoming and excited about the project. We hope to have the same reception with the film."