Haven’t you ever wondered what your life would be if you were born elsewhere in the world? This is the question that the protagonist of Around Them asked before embarking on this experiment, in which 15 women from 15 different countries get candid on camera to tell us their views on topics such as love, religion, their pride of belonging to their country and the situation of women in the place where they live.
Ruben Señor and Lucia Sanchez, the creators of Eternal Traveller Syndrome (a short film that has become a guide for thousands of people “addicted” to travelling the world), directed this exciting documentary feature premiering today on Feelmakers.
Ruben and Lucia are leaving footprints along the way, and one of these tracks is Around Them. We have talked with them about that syndrome, the film and above all, about them, the 15 women.
Feelmakers: Around Them is nestled within a broader project, which is the travel blog Algoquerecordar (Something to remember) and your “Eternal traveller syndrome”…
Ruben Señor (RS): Yes, a year ago we dropped everything, we sold everything, we quit our jobs, and fulfilled a dream we both had, that of travelling around the world. Around Them was shot during the first trip around the world.
We always say that our longest journey is not to have returned to the life from before, it is a one-way trip. We try to make every trip a project that transcends the mere trip itself. The first trip we made was to find out if we were compatible as companions, one month in Vietnam and Cambodia, where we shot the short film Eternal Traveller Syndrome; then we shot Around Them and we have now made a small documentary called Anoniman. We do things that satisfy that creative “hole” we have since coming from the world of advertising.
What motivated you for the film? Is the motivation of the narrator also that of their creators?
Lucía Sánchez (LS): Yes, it is the motivation of both, to find out how different or similar we are to the rest of the world, and also that’s the journey itself that we live in around the world. The reflections that arise during the documentary, although they have a particular narrative structure, are reflections of our own based on what was happening to us on our trip, not just talking with them, and we were dealing with it.
In the end, the documentary has two axes, one in which cultural differences, which is precisely the most beautiful part about travelling, discovering that we are different; and the other axis, which shows that in the important things, we really aren’t so different. When speaking about the fear of death, for example, we all have that fear, whether you’re from Peru or Myanmar, as that is something deeply rooted in the human being.
The focus of the film is very feminine and all women respond to a certain profile. How did you find these women?
RS: The starting point was to find women that were alike in their way of life and their way of understanding the world and who were like us. No sense to interview a farmer who cannot read or a millionaire, because neither respond to our lives. The idea was to find people who have a certain similar socioeconomic level. In fact, all them speak English, they have travelled..
Most of them are women with whom we have lived through couchsurfing and who we asked if they might participate.
LS: Couchsurfing, if you do not know, is a social network of travellers based on recommendations and providing hospitality to those coming from abroad. It is a form of travel that helps to save on lodging, but the real aim is for a cultural encounter to take place and what we’ve always dreamed of, which is for a local to show you the country. We do it with our house too when we are here.
Ruben always teases that if the film had been about men it would have lasted much less, and at first actually we did not want to focus it solely on women. It was when we did the first interview and saw how it flowed that we knew we had to be so, because there was a very great openness and receptivity and gave us a lot of material with which to work.
Also, from my point of view, there are very powerful messages of some of the things they say, I think in the case of a man would be received more aggressively, but on their part it gets received very warmly. For example, in the case of Muslims, when they put their veil on they say they want to be Muslim; if a man said it, you might view it as something sexist.
Indeed, historically, we have always gotten the perspective from men of what reality is. We wanted to give voice to women and see reality from their point of view, how they see their role in society.
The narrator, who is you Lucia, at first seeks to reassert her own beliefs, but at a given moment, she says: “I realized that not defending a single way of thinking gives you many reasons.” Does knowledge of multiculturalism lead to greater tolerance and open-mindedness?
LS: Most of them, and this was clear from the interviews, were all very friendly with other life choices. But of course, it is because they are women who have taken the decision to accept travellers into their home, for free, often against what your surroundings might think about it.
RS: Just as it happened us here, that when we received people, those around us would not accept it and were distrustful.
LS: It’s true, and these women have to try to explain what is gained by knowing someone culturally different from you. From that starting point, you can imagine they are people who have a lot of respect toward other realities. The trip in the end, what it gives you, is that things are not so radically black or white. When you get to talk to an Indian about what he understands about an arranged marriage, for example, you realize he has its own reasons, different from yours yes, but he’s not just speaking nonsense. You can find plenty of reasons if you are not radical about your own beliefs.
RS: In fact, the ultimate goal of Around Them, beyond what they say, is bare minimum you have left, the idea was to tear down the prejudices we have in the West, where we think this is the ideal life, one that everyone wants to have.
In that sense, it is curious that the only woman that considers choosing a different place if she could be born again, is the American. All others have clearly chosen their own place.
RS: We did not expect it. As good Westerners, we thought that everyone would choose Europe, London, etc., but nobody said that. Which made us think.
LS: The girl from Peru is now here studying a masters and talking to her about her impressions here, she told us that she wanted the documentary to get out, as she is a little tired of people believing that in Peru they live in jungle; people here speak to her slowly as if she was dumb and unable to figure things out. Lima is as a big city as Madrid, where people don’t go around in loincloths. She thinks there’s a sense of superiority here, it seems we have to teach them how to live well.
RS: However, from other countries, they see us with a kind of pity: for example, the girl from Laos, who had travelled a lot, said: “You work a lot to live, and we do not need anything, we help each other out a lot and you don’t starve”. And it’s true, we’ve been traveling, the worst that can happen is to be poor in the developed world: You’re scum, no one will help you, and the poor countries are more supportive.
On gender issue, everyone seems to agree that things are changing in their environment, but if you compare the situations, there is a gulf between improving gender equality in each.
LS: That for me is a key section. To us, it happened when we go to the homes it’s striking for them to see Ruben clearing the table after eating, and they tell me me that I am very lucky he helps out. Talking to me about the concept of “help”, me, who comes from a home where my father knows how to use the sewing machine, I cannot get my head around it.
I thought I would do the work of the Westerner, explaining that men do the same as women. But when you face a situation like that, where it is comparable to what your mother had, and looks like progress that they now can go to school, if I tell her that her husband has to clear the table it seems wrong to her. When we arrived in Bolivia, for example, they had just passed a law banning beating women.
I think every country has to go its own way according to their time and place in which they are, because they are not prepared to make such leaps.
The narrator says at one point that she thought she was going to run into more walls on the subject of religion. It is symptomatic that no woman says she is atheist.
RS: People are often afraid to say that. When we travel we do not say it, because in fact it is the worst thing you can say. In many countries, the first thing they ask you is if you’re married and what religion we have. You could tell some women had no religion, but sought to believe in something in order to not say they are atheists. Our conclusion is that religion is also part of mankind, from a philosophical standpoint.
It is true that we thought we would find much more radicalized people, especially with Islam. This has come down to us because we have many friends who are Muslims. 80% of Muslims are in Malaysia, Indonesia and India, and they feel very badly getting thrown everyone in the same bag as the radical ones and they try to not see them that way.
In South America religion is very mixed with previous beliefs as happens in Bolivia, with the land, etc., in Asia it’s the same, but among different religions living together. That shocked us, coming from a country where you’re either a Christian or you’re not.
We recently stayed in Mauritius and on the street where we were staying, there was a Christian church, a Buddhist temple and a mosque, and we were told that this happens because they live in peace.
Were there more issues you were wanting to talk about? Did anything get left in the pipeline, or on the editing room floor?
RS: During the trip you’re realizing that we could have asked more, but either we asked off camera (e.g., politics, sex), or we leave them out because they are matters that are not politically correct, and even less so in some of the places where the interviews were done.
What is the greatest lesson or conclusion you have drawn from both the journey and the sharing of all responses of women?
Especially those two lines we mentioned: that there are cultural differences on the surface, on the other hand, as told to us by the girl from Indonesia, “different means beautiful”, that is, the beauty in travelling the world it is to see how different it is; and the other conclusion is that we are equal in essence and deep down.
For us, Around Them begins when it ends, when you do what we’re doing now, which is talking about it.