The Bystander Story – Director’s Statement

Night. City. You’re walking home. You hear shouting. Turning the corner, there’s a group of people throwing punches and shoving. One of them may have a knife. Do you try and help? Call the cops? Start filming? Or do you walk away? I often wonder what I’d do in such a situation. 

Yet another story on your news feed claims that bystanders failed to assist in an emergency. Instead, they watched the violence unfold. Psychology’s ‘bystander effect’ experiments were inspired by one such story from 1964: the rape and murder of Kitty Genovese in New York. Thirty-eight witnesses watched the attack – and did nothing. Allegedly. Psychologists claimed that the more onlookers on a scene, the less likely it was that any of them would help. Yet there is growing evidence to the contrary. 

As a filmmaker, false narratives are something I can tackle. I sought help. UK-based social psychologist Mark Levine has spent much of his career investigating how bystanders do help in crises. We began collaborating. In a workshop with actors we explored ways of recreating incidents drawn from CCTV and phone footage. The events captured were fast-moving, shot from a distance, often in low light – and partially obscured. We worked together to fill in aspects of the stories missing from the recordings – and from the public narratives.

An eyewitness demonstrates to a collection of people how a traffic accident took place … The demonstrator acts … so that those looking can form an opinion about the incident,’ wrote Brecht in 1938. This resonated for me. 

I cast the net wider. Pulled in more stories. Records of bystander incidents: verbatim accounts; transcripts; court cases; bodycam footage. Director of photography, Anna Howard, joined the team. An emergency services volunteer on her days off, she shared my fascination with bystander dynamics. 

With a tilt at documentary noir, The Bystander Story is an investigation. Our studio becomes a streetscape. A minimalist set and imaginative lighting let us shift the action from Sydney to London to Seoul – and elsewhere. Our ensemble of six actors play a range of contemporary urban dwellers. Sometimes they’re onlookers who find themselves caught up, or intervening in threatening situations. Sometimes they’re people trying to make sense of it afterwards. Analysis from psychologist Mark Levine provides the film’s narrative spine. Think of him as our expert witness.

The Bystander Story begins with Kitty Genovese. It ends with George Floyd. It focusses on the myriad ways people come together to help in crisis situations. 

The Bystander Story aims to spark conversations. I’ve got a bystander story – most of us have. What’s yours?