“Where do you come from? Where do you go?
Sorry that’s nothin’ you would need to know.”
A Response to Eva Stotz’s Global Home
by Pablo D’Stair
It didn’t take long to feel that Eva Stotz’s documentary Global Home and I were a regular Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn seated across from each other over a long dinner, the film doing its best to relate some philosophy of life I was meant to see a nuanced new perspective in, me taking in each word and image but feeling increasingly peculiar, like there was some basic principle my dinner partner was overlooking, that they were trying to make an observation-writ-large when the simple honesty of personal statement was more apropos.
Like the two diners in Louis Malle’s exploratory film, this documentary and I never got to a place of equal footing and, like Wallace with Andre, I never got shut of the creeping feeling I was being halfway lectured to, halfway sold a bill-of-goods.
Global Home begins with the filmmaker in a personal (if somewhat aloof) manner speaking of the electronic connectivity of the modern world, juxtaposing it with her early years of rather isolated, rural living, this observation stone-skipping to the idea of her being possessed of a kind of philosophical rootlessness, a kinship to the nomad-heart but a kinship she has some uneasiness with. Why this lack of desire for roots? Why this ingrained wanderlust in the blood? The film sets itself up as an exploration of what makes this woman want to roam, suggesting she will look for the reason by way of plumbing the minds and experiences of kindred spirits.
But past this introduction, this person who has presented herself and her condition seems to evaporate, the film becoming rather non-corporeal in its presentation. The film shows footage of the world, of particular places the filmmaker travels—lingering footage of everyday life, street scenes, traffic, rooftops, footage with no commentary given—but less-and-less shows or gives voice to the filmmaker’s perspective on any of it.
What Global Home does do is introduce a particularized method of travel through the aperture of a non-profit organization called Couch Surfing. In a nutshell, this is a social network in which hospitable individuals from various part of the world meet via the internet and offer to let each other stay at each others’ dwelling, free-of-charge.
Couch Surfing seems a very nice thing, indeed—but (and the film never seems to address this) a very particularized opportunity built on undercurrents of a very specific worldview, one based from a station of privilege, no matter how one slants it. It is a method of travel (nomadic-ness, the film suggests) necessitating a substantial monetary base for its figment “freeness”—someone from the US, for example, must first and foremost be able to afford the thousands of dollars for an airplane ticket to Mali, Japan (etc etc) and only after this may be set up with a hospitable individual who will allow them residence, no money asked, for the length of the stay.
This is something the film seems to dwell on—this lack of “monetary exchange.” A philosophy is presented that Couch Surfing is a method of travel seeking to be antidote to some (to paraphrase certain folks who are spoken to in the film) highly corporatized method of travel and exposure to the world, a corporation-controlled (or at least conditioned) culture of human interface, one the film suggests has the goal of homogenization, of “same-ing” cultures and peoples rather than celebrating differences in lifestyle, custom, etc.
This tacit philosophy is hard driven in the documentary, discussed variously and at length with no specific examples given of “corporate-soulless-travel-methods” in any form—Couch Surfing seems (instead of merely being explored, merely said to exist as a thing that some may participate in) to be placed in a singular light, as a bold and departing philosophy from the stagnating norm of “how the rest of the world does things.”
Well and good, perhaps—the film suggests a grandeur, a new dramatic angling to the age old notion of “traveling on the cheap,” a certain version of residence-swapping, of hostel-living, of communal/group travel in order to see how the rest of the world is without “commercialized, tourist culture” sullying things. But in this, it perhaps oversteps a bit, aggrandizes peculiarly, explores a “method of travel” ad-nauseum while ignoring an exploration of the intricacies of “travel” itself.
And how this returns to the notion of a “wanderer’s heart”…is something I admit I looked at somewhat askance. Without counter-example, showing other methods of travel (of nomad-ness), the repeated notions of what Couch Surfing achieves took on the air of part advertisement, part hyper-specific (even cloistered) view of the wider world. The film spends time with the founder of the non-profit, discusses (fleetingly) the ins-and-outs of how it works, always lacing in a kind of mission-statement and this mission-statement is given always with a sense of “This is how Couch Surfing is different than…” to the point I could not help but turn the most obvious question “Different than what?” into a cudgel at the sameness I was presented in, it seemed to me, nothing more than rather run-of-the-mill travelogue footage.
I am often negatively struck in travel documentaries by how “other places” are presented to the audience. I cringed at moments of Ewan McGregor traveling via motorcycle through Kazakhstan and sundry other places sometimes stopping at indigenous dwellings and holding up bowls or utensils to remark on their workmanship, treating living homes like museums of curiosities. And this over-exoticizing of what is just the day-to-day life of people was present in the very broth of Global Home, adding to the sense of “privileged outsider view” of travel and of the world.
Even in the “I want to follow you on a normal day” approach of the filmmaker, a subtextual oddity exists—because ordinary days are what we are presented and any sense of finding them especially “different” because they are happening in other parts of the world is a forced hand. It was as though the film suggested it should be a surprise that people do things everywhere and these things are interesting when, to me, the reaction is simply “Of course people do things, of course they are intriguing for their ordinariness—ordinary life is, yes, beautiful.”
But this is not something world travel has the market cornered on revealing. Nor, I might add, is encountering basic human hospitality and desire to interact and share.
An addendum to these above remarks is that the reinforcing of the “privileged outsider view” is made uncomfortably evident in that the subjective “freeness” (monetarily) of the filmmaker’s travels to have these differences-and-samenesses of human life revealed takes on an almost glib posturing—there is the problem, not so much addressed, that if travel is needed to have an understanding of one’s place in culture, one’s identity, then what of the people who do not stray far from home regularly, if ever? The film does (I do not believe purposefully, but nonetheless) suggest that they face an unconscious stagnation, an unawareness of the tapestry they are part of, their lives, by the filmmaker, made examples of a larger whole but in this somewhat denuded of the wholeness they themselves contain.
Flatly, I will say the film did not strike me as a discussion of or a delving into a nomad-headspace versus the headspace of one seeking or possessing strong roots—quite the opposite, there was a stark timidity in its version of Explorer. In it setting up as so a priori the idea that “kindred spirits need to be sought out before travel begins” it removed, in my view, the principle magic and intrigue of travel—the “unknown” the participation of being pure outsider and finding a way in, an interface with raw humanity.
Further, I could not help but feel the wider world was being boogeyman-ed by the film’s slant. This organization (Couch Surfing) the film seemed to say, helps people feel less alone, because without it to travel into the “individually unknown world” almost certainly will cause isolation, outcastedness, as though if one doesn’t have someone waiting to show them around the World will ignore them or have them come to some foul.
As I say, this I found to be for the most part tacitly and subtextually expressed, but at times I felt the noia simmer to the top of the pot, for example in a rather non-sequitur mention that a Mali music festival was no longer taking place out in the wild desert but closer in to populated areas because of a spate of human-trafficking abductions—this presented with no exploration, no context, just a little pepper of “there’s danger out there” seemingly set in support of organized get-togethers and travel networks. Again, this set so without counter examples of travel method—from staying in hostels or staying in hotels and just having a walk around to encounter the wide array of strangers one might—seemed to paint as over-unique and even “necessary” Couch Surfing as a solution to goblin-problems never quite named.
As Global Home wound down, I found my position as Wallace to its Gregory all the more on point. In Malle’s film, Wallace says (after having listened to Gregory talk of his travels and expound his philosophy of such exploits being necessary to exploring the fullness of the human condition) that he could go into the cigar shop down the street and likely discover such nuance, humanity, and reality as would blow his mind—to this, with somewhat dimmer eyes, Andre reasserting that, no, he thinks the departure, the radically unknown is essential, a kick, a prompt needed to wake people up into a truer, fuller revealed sense-of-self.
This is especially poignant for me in response to Stotz’s documentary, because something I thought at odds with itself was that the simple lives the film depicted could be (and are) just as readily, continuously happening down the street, a bus route away, a day out by train, everywhere, all the time. And this sameness, honestly, in the very footage the film presented (what happened in Mali so like San Francisco so like Japan etc.) seemed to be something to celebrate—yet the voice of the film so consistently rallied against such notions as watering down, homogenizing, diluting the world instead of finding infinity in commonality, the world only and wonderfully as different as any one person is to any other, independent of how, when, why, or to what purpose or with what intention any two happen to touch.
Pablo D’Stair is a novelist, essayist, and interviewer. Co-founder of the art house press KUBOA, he is also a regular contributor to the Montage: Cultural Paradigm (Sri Lanka). His book Four Self-Interviews About Cinema: the short films of director Norman Reedus will be re-releasing October, 2012 through Serenity House Publishing, International.