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Bystanders Review: An Unflinching Look at Friendship and Accountability in the #MeToo Era

We live in a society that admires sex appeal yet shies away from having dialogues about sex. Even though sex sells, sexual behavior is treated as a less-than-desirable trait. 

Rather than celebrate sex, our culture criticizes people who embrace their sexuality. Our deeply entrenched Puritan values have fostered a culture of silence regarding any form of sexual misconduct. As a result, generations of sexual abuse survivors have been ignored, discredited, and shamed into not speaking out. 

In 2017, a social reckoning arrived in the form of the #MeToo movement. After decades of predatory behaviour, abusers were finally being held to account. Silenced women received a platform to share incriminating stories about rich and powerful men.  

We’re now several years into the #MeToo era, and people are still processing how to deal with its ramifications. It’s easy to cancel a celebrity we’ve never met once dozens of women step forward with abuse claims. But not everyone accused of sexual misconduct is an irredeemable monster making newspaper headlines. What should we do when the alleged abuser is someone we know and love? Do we show our support or stand back and watch them struggle on their own? 

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That’s a tricky question with no one-size-fits-all answer. People can’t simply push a button to deactivate their feelings toward a loved one accused of doing a terrible thing. However, there’s a vocal segment of morality police on social media who disagree because they’re driven by moral certainty. Twitter mobs operate on the principle that you’re either an ally or part of the problem. There’s no middle ground. Attempting to bring nuance to a complicated scenario is grounds to get you cancelled. 

Fortunately, there’s always been artists willing to provoke and challenge groupthink, even when it’s unpopular to do so. One such artist is Nova Scotian writer-director Koumbie, whose film, Bystanders provides an uncompromising look at millennial relationships in the #MeToo era. 

The film sees a group of twenty-somethings get together at a cottage for their yearly spring getaway. At first the life-long friends enjoy the rare opportunity to be together under one roof. Life is bliss as “The Six” drink, dance, and get high with no f**ks given about the world outside their cabin door. But the party grinds to a halt when a shocking allegation turns their dream weekend into a nightmare.  

The group’s golden boy Justin (Taylor Olson), a handsome, swaggering med student, has been accused of sexual misconduct. And the allegation forces the tight-knit group to wrestle with troubling thoughts. What if the claim is true? Should they stand by their longtime friend, or does supporting Justin make them complicit in his predatory behaviour?    

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I spoke to the film’s director and cast on the red carpet at Bystanders’ Halifax premiere. And I asked Koumbie about the film’s long gestation (it was conceived in 2016) and how it evolved during the #MeToo era. 

“One of the reasons it did take so long was that we were trying to find that balance of making it feel current, and the conversation was changing so much over those few years,” Koumbie told me. “It really has shifted so much. I think right now if we were trying to make the movie again it would probably be a different movie.” 

Bystanders- Taylor Olson and Peter Sarty

In addition to playing the film’s alleged abuser, Justin, Taylor Olson also co-wrote the film. I asked him about his mindset when taking on the part. “It’s funny because I didn’t want to play the role when I started. I wanted to play another character, Zeke, and my partner said when we got close to production, I need you to do it,” he said. 

Olson says making Justin as “average as possible” was very important. “This guy is your brother, he’s your best friend, he’s your uncle. He’s someone that you know that’s close by, and so the goal was to make him as much like everyone else as possible because the statistics of ¼ women being sexually assaulted in their lifetime means there are a high percentage of men that are committing sexual assault,” he told me. 

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Katelyn McCulloch plays Sophia, Justin’s longtime friend who sides with his accuser. McCulloch believes the #MeToo movement’s impact has been amazing, but there is still a long way to go. She says, “we’ve unearthed a lot, we’ve started discussing these complicated issues, but there’s still a lot to be discussed. There’s still a lot of nuanced situations that need to be explored and deserve time onscreen, and in the news, and in life.” 

What sets Bystanders apart from other films on the topic is how it refuses to spoon-feed viewers easy answers. Instead, Koumbie invites the audience to grapple with a series of tough questions regarding complicity, consent, and accountability.  

At its core, Bystanders is a timely and emotionally resonant film that engages with complex issues through empathy and compassion. Rather than meet the culture where it’s at, the film demands viewers engage it on its own terms. The experience may guide you gently by the hand or drag you kicking and screaming, but either way, you’ll end up outside your comfort zone. 

Bystanders Tour Stops:
April 26: Halifax
April 28: Vancouver
April 30: Calgary

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