Couchsurfing was my gateway drug
“I was going to document couchsurfing and it turned into something much bigger,” says Alexandra Liss, world traveler and director of the new documentary One Couch at a Time.
Made possible by CouchSurfing.org founder Casey Fenton’s vision to enable people from around the world to share meaningful experiences with each other, One Couch at a Time follows Liss across 21 countries and six subcontinents, sleeping in 80 different homes over a period of seven months, and her evolution from happy-go-lucky sojourner to traveler with a cause.
The film starts with the San Francisco native planning her itinerary around confirmations from hosts who want to be part of her project, as well as various quirky renditions of the old “What if you stay with an axe murderer?” concern from her friends and family. While others may have their reservations, it’s pretty clear that second thoughts are not in Liss’ DNA.
Everything about her is upbeat, wide-eyed, and blissfully oblivious to humanity’s warts — you really just want to hop in her backpack, knowing that whenever you poke your head out you’d be showered with smiles or caught in the middle of a hug.
And yet, from the get-go you can’t escape the feeling that there’s more to this than just fun and games in exotic countries. There’s an intention behind it all, and while the larger purpose of her journey may not come into focus for the viewer or even the filmmaker herself until a few thousand miles into the trip, the clues start piling up long before she’s met her Pakistani camerawoman Zohra Aliana, taken a boat down the delta of Maun, and zipped through Ho Chi Minh on the back of her couchsurfing host’s scooter.
Whether it’s getting $8,000 of seed money crowdfunded in less than a month, having three perfect strangers sign up to be her volunteer camera-hands, or assembling a 60-person international volunteer crew, the world around her begins to imitate what Liss will ultimately come to call her “shareable life.” Taking a leap of faith, reaching out, and asking for help seem to be ingredients not only for a tasty journey and a well-seasoned film production, but for a deeper flavor of what’s possible when we open ourselves to the idea that there are people in this world who have what we need and are willing to give it freely so we can build something meaningful together. Or as Casey Fenton puts it, “when you’re willing to share your resources with a stranger, the stranger is no longer strange.”
It’s hard to pick one particular personal encounter responsible for Liss’ epiphany that the concept of a shared economy could change the way we measure prosperity and success, so I’ll just pick two. In Durban, she stays with Sifiso Mazibuko, a generous soul in modest surroundings whose savvy cultural insights not only make him the perfect person to explain why racism in South Africa is alive even though apartheid is dead, but land him the gig as the film’s social media manager. In Casablanca, creative muse Walid Bendra shows how art and music make life large no matter how small your house, making him the logical candidate to become the documentary’s official graphic designer.
“Couchsurfing was my gateway drug to the shared economy,” says Liss, who has just begun distributing her film through — what else? — crowdsourcing community screenings on couches across the world. Whether you end up at Burning Man like she does in the movie, or you get your inspiration for a collaborative future from less ostentatious places, it’s all the same as far as the couchsurfing veteran is concerned — the age of sharing is just beginning, and anyone can join.
“I want my future children to grow up around different cultures and instill sharing and exchange,” Liss explains her personal aspirations. “And when I’m too old to travel myself, I’ll be hosting from my rocking chair.” Let’s hope there’ll be cameras on hand to capture those scenes.
To host a screening on your couch, go to www.onecouchatatime.com.