Every day, we are on the precipice of having a meaningful interaction with a complete stranger. A bank teller. A barista. An Uber driver. Another mother at the park. A fellow cyclist stopped at a stoplight. There’s a moment—did you feel it?—where a conversation could begin. You make eye contact; they enter your space, or you enter theirs. But, more often than not, the moment passes. Your eyes return to your book, or your kid says something, or you get the urge to check Instagram.
Which isn’t something we should feel guilty about, necessarily. We are the product of our culture, and there’s plenty of research to suggest that America is becoming more and more private. In his book, Bowling Alone, professor Robert Putnam argues that, in the years since WWII, America has seen a large decline in “social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them.” We’ve grown detached from local communities, churches and government. A Pew Research study also shows that Americans talk to their neighbors far less than they did a few decades ago. (Side note: In spite of all this, Americans engage in small talk far more than people from other countries. Check out this great New Yorker article by Karan Mahajan for more on that.)
Part of this “individualization” may have to do with technology: our leisure time and social interactions are increasingly digitized. I wonder, too, how much of this shift is related to mistrust and fear. A Pew Research study reveals that nearly 50% of both Democrats and Republicans view the opposing party as a “threat to the nation.” And, as recent events like the El Paso and the Dayton shootings have made heartbreakingly clear, many Americans are not safe in the most public of places. When you take all of this into account, maybe it’s not so shocking that we don’t want to talk to strangers.
Perhaps that’s what makes The Bench so powerful: it has the audacity to hope for human connection. The Bench is an award-winning short film written and directed by Cameron Burnett. If that name sounds familiar, it should! He’s the son of Mark Burnett, producer of Survivor who along with his wife Roma Downey produced The Bible and Son of God and founded this very publication you’re reading. Cameron wrote and directed The Bench in 2015, using the film to get accepted into the USC School of Cinematic Arts. Since then, the short film has been selected at over 35 film festivals and garnered 8 awards, including a premiere at the Oscar-qualified Foyle Film Festival.
Here’s the plot of The Bench in a nutshell.
A young man sits down on a park bench beside a blind elderly man who then asks the young man to describe the scenery for him. The young man agrees, and paints a blissful picture for the blind man, telling him about the kids racing around the grass, and the ducks in the pond, and the guy serenading his girlfriend with his guitar. The older man smiles and thanks him profusely, and the young man gets up to go. But then, we see (plot twist/spoiler!) that the park is empty, and (double plot twist!) the young man is blind, too. The End.
When I first watched the film, I’ll admit, my first reaction was, “Well, this seems too good to be true.” I live in a large city, so I often find myself sitting next to strangers on public transit or in a park, and I have to say, spontaneous conversations are a rarity. They happen, sure, but not often. In other words, The Bench was beautiful, but it depicted a world that was far more generous and open than the one I know. Also, what did that ending mean?!
But maybe that’s the point. In a 2016 interview with USC, Cameron tells the story of another short film he made during a summer program, one called The Janitor. While all of the other students were making “super dark” films, he says, he decided to make “a lighthearted positive film about a janitor.” In this film (which you can watch here), a janitor is teased relentlessly by a group of students, and then one of them accidentally leaves his iPhone, and the janitor pockets it. The twist? He gives it back! No revenge, no vindication. Just kindness. Again, it’s overwhelmingly hopeful, but that’s what Cameron Burnett does. He tells the stories he thinks the world needs to hear.
Cameron sums up the message of The Bench as a reminder “that in every encounter is the opportunity for kindness.” That comes across loud and clear, but what makes The Bench especially potent is the way it demonstrates that anyone is capable of sharing a moment of genuine connection with another person. Think about the ending for a second. All of the stuff that the young man described? It wasn’t there. He was blind, too. And yet, he described this scene to the old man. Why? Because he was there. He was the one who sat down.
That’s the beauty of The Bench: in a world where pain and darkness are so often the dominant narrative, the twist in this story is hope. One human was kind to another human being just for the heck of it. Kindness between strangers may be hard to come by, but it is certainly possible.
Cameron was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about the film, so I’ll leave you with his answers.
The double twist ending— how does that contribute to the overall message of kindness in the short film?
On the surface, The Bench seems to be just a random encounter on a park bench. But with each of the two reveals at the end of the short a deeper meaning settles into the viewer that recontextualizes the entire film. First, we see the completely empty park, in that moment we realize that all of the wonderful things the young man was describing weren’t really there. Slightly confused and intrigued we as the audience lean in, wanting to know more. But it is the second reveal that puts the final piece of the puzzle together.
We see the young man walking away using a guiding stick. It is in that moment that we realize that he was also blind. As we rewatch the film for the second time we see the young man’s confusion when the old man asks him to describe the day to him and we now know why. We see the pause, the moment of hesitation before the young man decides to invent an idyllic scene unfolding before their eyes to bring joy to the old man’s day. That one small random act of kindness that has a positive impact on others.
What inspired you to explore disability in The Bench?
The inspiration for The Bench came in one small moment in a very inspiring movie called Bella. There is a scene in that movie where the main characters walk past a blind man on the street and he asks them to describe the day to him. That one moment brought me to imagine all the different ways that encounter could go.
Why is it important to tell positive stories in this day and age?
I think it’s very important to not only tell positive stories to inspire people but also to do random acts of kindness whenever possible. Because you never really know how impactful that small act could have on others.