Our Own Production: One Couch at a Time

One Couch at a Time follows backpacker and film maker Alexandra Liss across 6 continents, 21 countries, Couchsurfing for 7 months in the first full-length feature ever to document the CouchSurfing movement and this emerging ‘age of sharing’. Produced by The Flicks owner Ramon Stoppelenburg.

The Documentary

The film follows protagonist and veteran CouchSurfer, Alexandra Liss, through 21 countries, 6 subcontinents, for 7 months using CouchSurfing.org. As we explore our inner and societal limits, this film pushes us to ask ourselves and our peers “what would YOU be willing to share with a stranger?”

CouchSurfing is a planet in this “sharing economy” galaxy- and the platform for which this entire film takes place. Alexandra also explores crowd funding, co-working, ridesharing, and gifting at the ultimate sharing society – Burningman! We focus, however, on the micro by capturing the magical, heart-warming, serendipitous exchanges that occur one couch at a time.

Each host and traveler along the way provide unique experiences becoming sub-subjects illustrating the incredible exchange. Alexandra, who begins her journey full of confusion, ends up learning lessons of a lifetime with the help of a few worldly friends.

We learn, that by embracing the “age of sharing” mentality is to have access to methods which make the pursuit of your passions and dreams merely a couch away. Featured interviews include sharing economy expert Rachel Botsman, founder of Burningman Larry Harvey, sacred economist Charles Eisenstein, the founder of Couchsurfing, Casey Fenton and his source of inspiration, the Godfather of Couchsurfing, Ramon Stoppelenburg.

Others about

Alex Liss truly captured what “sharing” really is in this film. I never even heard about couch surfing until i saw this documentary. Its really opened my eyes to the good of people an how travel is truly and adventure that most miss out on. I think everyone should watch this flick and then get out there and see where the open road take you.
– Will Nenverdal

In this film you see her vulnerable at times, admitting she’s wrong but also striving to find new ways to connect with people. You are able to understand the type of personal growth that couchsurfing and traveling both foster.
– Jennifer Vera

Through interviews with preeminent experts, the academic side of the sharing economy weaves in alongside the personal experiences of the travelers in the film, creating an undeniable argument for the future of sharing the modern age. Definitely of interest for anyone who travels — even if you’d never sleep on someone else’s couch if you were paid to do it! By the end of the film a compelling argument has been made that we would all do well to open our doors a little wider and consider what we might be willing to share with strangers.
– Grace Andie

Surfing into a new age of sharing

‘We envision a world where everyone can explore and create meaningful connections with the people and places they encounter. Building meaningful connections across cultures enables us to respond to diversity with curiosity, appreciation and respect. The appreciation of diversity spreads tolerance and creates a global community’ – Handwritten sign at Couchsurfing.com headquarters in San Francisco

Talk to a stranger: put together, perhaps the four most terrifying words on the planet. In a world where Commerce is king, meaningful human connections are going the way of the dodo. Dirty cash and our incessant craving for the stuff have all but snuffed out the spirit of pre-monetary cultures, in which those who gave the most to their fellow man were revered rather than those whose garage housed the largest Lexus. But with capitalist economies collapsing around the world, a brave new model is rising from the rubble – and it’s doing so, right here, among the cushions of your very own sofa (that’s ‘couch’ to our American friends).

Once upon a time, 2001 to be exact, the ever-affable blue-eyed Dutchman behind The Flicks Community Movie Theaters in Phnom Penh wasn’t known as the godfather of couch surfing. Global media had yet to brand him ‘The world’s biggest freeloader’ (he still prefers ‘economic refugee’) and the concept of social networking so entrenched in Facebook, Twitter and YouTube hadn’t even been invented. The horror!

Ramon Stoppelenburg, then a journalism student in his mid-20s, wanted to travel the world. There was only one catch: his wallet was so empty it echoed. Enter the blossoming technology we now know as The Almighty Internet. Letmestayforaday.com was Ramon’s domain. His mission: to boldly go where no man (or woman) had gone before and traverse the globe for free, simply by hopping – based on invitations he received online – from sofa to sofa.

Wired.com was the first to pick the story up from the Dutch press. Before you could say ‘Web 2.0’, he was fielding interview requests from media in every language from Portuguese to Hebrew. “BOOM! It exploded! I’m at my house with my friends and my phone rings. ‘Ramon, there’s a Brazilian radio station on the phone.’ OK. Hello? No, my Spanish not so good… People could invite me through the website. ‘Here’s my address. Yes, you can stay.’ I got all these invitations: 4,000 from 72 countries. That was in about two to three months. Half an hour later I got another phone call: Nagoya FM in Tokyo. My friends were looking at me like ‘What the fuck is going on here?!’ That’s the way the internet works! It’s about people connecting.

“I left my student house in the Netherlands, followed by two or three camera crews from Dutch TV. My mum was there: ‘Here’s a packed lunch!’ They zoomed in on my mum until she started to cry and that second was, of course, broadcast. ‘I just hope nothing happens to him because the world is scary and dangerous.’ That was my cue to say: ‘I want to prove that people aren’t scary and dangerous. If you want to think that way, please stay inside and turn on your TV.’”

By December 2001, the Guardian and Sunday Times newspapers in the UK had declared him Internet Personality of the Year. Two years and 10,000 new friends later, Ramon – who features in One Couch At A Time, perhaps the most uplifting documentary you’ll ever see, which is screening at The Flicks this week – had become the poster boy for what academics and lefties now loftily refer to as the ‘sharing economy’. Put bluntly, your money’s no good here. The currency sharing economists exchange is, by comparison, priceless.

One Couch At A Time might, to the uninitiated, sound like 90 minutes of stinking hippies splayed out on strangers’ soft furnishings, but although wild and woolly types do make the odd appearance, the actual premise of the film runs far deeper. It’s above all a philosophical one, examining the practical realities of an alternative ‘pay-it-forward’ economy. Even the documentary itself was crowd-funded: filmmaker Alexandra Liss, self-declared “loudmouth San Franciscan”, pitched the idea on kickstart.com, where 165 backers pledged almost $300 more than her $7,700 goal.

Six continents, 21 countries and dozens of life-changing couch-surfer experiences later, Alexandra has thoroughly dissected the question ‘What would you be willing to share with a stranger?’ The answer, says Ramon, can be surprising (The Flicks was also crowd funded). “I travelled through 18 countries for two years and did not spend a penny. I think I’ve met over 10,000 people. You shake hands with so many people when you’re travelling. I stayed with 800 people in their homes; I had about 800 free breakfasts and dinners. People take you out almost every day. Sometimes it was fun to find myself with a family who said ‘We’re going to stay in and watch DVDs tonight.’ Oh, YES!

“My first destination was a town called Hilversum, the broadcasting capital in the centre of the Netherlands, where a radio DJ had invited me over. He had a night show, so I was sleeping in his studio in return for talking on air about what I was doing. He had a stretcher and mattress and a sleeping bag in his studio. I hardly slept! A week later I was in Belgium and a week after that I was in Paris. I stayed with one French student and they said: ‘So, you’re staying the night?’ Yes, you invited me. ‘I don’t remember; I lost the form I filled in.’ She had no clue what she had to do with me. We’re basically sitting in front of each other. ‘And now?’ Do whatever you want to do. I’m your guest! ‘I’ve never done this before. Let’s go for a drink!’ Perfect!

“In return for the hospitality – it wasn’t just being the Dutch global freeloader, which the media tried to make of me – I wrote daily reports about how I got there; the people I stayed with; their mentality; their way of life; what they fed me and what we did in the evening and maybe political discussions. Three thousand words per day. If I didn’t write a report one day and there was no update, I would get 500 emails: ‘I’m here at my office, travelling along with you. Where’s your update?! Don’t you get lazy!’ When I was in Amsterdam and had my couch available I was getting 50 requests to stay per day. Of course you get the freeloaders who just want a night out, but you also get the ones who are really interested in who you are and how you live in your city. ‘Can I stay for five days? Is that too much to ask?’ Hell yeah! Party on!”

All very well, but to borrow from what Alexandra notes is always the first question she gets asked, what if your host is – GASP! – an axe murderer? CouchSurfing International founder Casey Fenton insists all you need is trust. “When you enter a sharing economy or a pay-it-forward system, you’re able to let your guard down a little bit more. ‘I’m just going to trust that this is all going to work out. I’m going to pay into this system and this system will provide. These people will provide, these people who I believe in and who I believe also believe in me.’”

And in reality? “I never had scary moments; I was more amazed by people,” says Ramon. “In Norway, someone opened the door of the apartment I was due to stay in. Are you my host? ‘No, I’m his assistant. Follow me.’ We go in and there’s this guy in a wheelchair. He can’t move. He has a disease that’s killing his nerves and he talks with a tube in his mouth. He’s on the internet every day. I was his window onto the world. He wants to know my story and he tells me his story and I’m just amazed by the fact I’m invited by all kinds of people. This guy has nothing: he lives on benefits and has an assistant otherwise he would just die. He showed me how he could use the internet using a tube in his mouth and a touch screen. He’s connected.”

Ultimately, isn’t this precisely what this new ‘age of sharing’ is about: meaningful human connections? “Yes! No scary parts. I stayed with gay people, with disabled people, people who have absolutely nothing and are struggling to survive. The next day I’m staying with really rich people. On the other side of their gates are the South African slums, where 1,500 people live in a square kilometer. It gives me insight into so many personalities. About 25 per country are my Facebook friends and about five per country I’m really close with. They tell me their business ventures; they ask me for advice; I ask them for advice. Because I now know lawyers, I know publishers; I have a network. Oh, you need somebody? I know a guy in India who can help you. Connect that person up with someone else who’s a copywriter and two years later I get a message: they’re married!”

But couldn’t this be dismissed as ‘just a bunch of tree-hugging hippy crap’? Time magazine certainly doesn’t think so. In December 2006, it bestowed the esteemed title of Person of the Year not on any world economist, politician or captain of industry. For the first time in the magazine’s now 90-year history, its editors announced that ‘You – Yes, YOU – are Time’s Person of the Year’.

‘Look at 2006 through a different lens and you’ll see another story, one that isn’t about conflict or great men,’ they gushed. ‘It’s a story about community and collaboration on a scale never seen before. It’s about the cosmic compendium of knowledge Wikipedia and the million-channel people’s network YouTube and the online metropolis MySpace. It’s about the many wresting power from the few and helping one another for nothing and how that will not only change the world, but also change the way the world changes. The tool that makes this possible is the World Wide Web. Not the Web that Tim Berners-Lee hacked together (15 years ago, according to Wikipedia) as a way for scientists to share research. It’s not even the overhyped dotcom Web of the late 1990s. The new Web is a very different thing. It’s a tool for bringing together the small contributions of millions of people and making them matter. Silicon Valley consultants call it Web 2.0, as if it were a new version of some old software. But it’s really a revolution.’

Sharing economy expert Rachel Botsman, author of What’s Mine Is Yours, concurs. In One Couch At A Time, she says to Alexandra: “I don’t think you can underestimate how big a role the digital revolution has played in accelerating collaborative consumption. Not just in terms of creating the efficiency and trust that make it work, but actually fundamentally changing people’s behaviours around sharing.”

Author/philosopher Charles Eisenstein, also interviewed, takes things a step further: “In a gift economy, you need each other. You can’t just pay somebody else to do it. We live today in a world – in the West at least – where for many people our quantifiable needs and fulfilled and over fulfilled, but we’re still starving for something. And we’re starving for something that can’t be measured. I want something personal. I want to be fed; I want real relationships; I want authenticity; I want intimacy. You can pay someone to fake it, but you can’t pay someone to actually care… In pre-monetary cultures, very often status would go to the person who gave the most to the community, rather than the person who had or controlled the most… Gifts create ties and you can even say community depends on gifts. If there are no gifts then there’s no community.”

“I think we’re heading towards a new generation of people,” says Ramon. “Yes, you can order anything online at the big corporations, but people are going to use the internet for connecting with other people. ‘I need help!’ You put that on Facebook and 50 comments will say: ‘How can I help you?’ There you go! The technology made it possible to instantly connect with someone on the other side of the world. It used to be a phone with a dial. If you didn’t have that person’s phone number, you had to write a letter. The internet made it possible to connect and my project made a lot of people realise that the internet isn’t about creating virtual malls, where you can walk through every store ever conceived. When the bubble burst in 2001, people realised it’s about the customers who walk through these virtual malls. They have opinions; they have information; they talk to each other: a connection. BOOM! That’s how a social network is created.

“With the internet, you’re never alone any more. You can’t just die alone. Putting older people in nursing homes? That won’t be accepted when we’re old. We’ll be taking care of each other more, not demanding that society pays for our healthcare when we need someone to wash our butts twice a week. We will be doing that way different in the future because we connect; we will be there for each other. It’s all about giving. Shared economy? That was a new term for me. It didn’t even have a name when I first set out, but it’s been my lifestyle since 2001 and that’s where we’re headed. People who live a cubicle life, I wish I could shake them awake! Stand up! Look over that cubicle! What do you really want? What makes you happy? It’s about opening your eyes and taking that small step you think is a giant leap. Be honest, be open and respect each other in everything you do – business wise, family wise, personally – and there can’t be any issues.”