Recently, on a quiet Tuesday night, I crawled into bed with a bottle of wine and watched Human, by French reporter and filmmaker Yann Arthus-Bertrand: one of the most intense and compelling documentaries I’ve seen to date. Over the course of three years, Bertrand travelled across 65 countries, speaking to over 2,000 people from across the globe in a quest to understand the world in which we live, and the nature of humanity. In his genesis of the film, Bertrand discusses his feeling that despite humanity’s progression, “we are still living in a two tier world, undermined by inequalities, ravaged by wars. We are still incapable of living together.” Human is his attempt to understand why, and to answer the following (terrifying) questions:
Why from one generation to the next do we continue to make the same mistakes? […] Witnessing so many other life stories made me wonder – do we all have the same desire for love, for freedom and for recognition? In a world torn between tradition and modernity, are our unchanging needs the same everywhere? Ultimately, what does it mean to be a human today? What is the meaning of life? Are our differences so huge? Do we not share more values than we think? And if so, why is it still so hard to understand one another?
Bertrand sets himself some overwhelmingly complex ground to cover here, but the results of his journey are astounding, and the stories captured heartbreaking, comic and anger-inducing (sometimes all at once). The film opens by considering the definition of love, exposing us to each individual’s intensely personal – and often drastically different – experience of it. From the first interview, we are captivated.
I remember my stepfather would beat me with extension cords, and hangers and pieces of wood and all kind of stuff. After every beating he would tell me… y’know… it hurt me more than it hurt you. And I only did it because I love you. It communicated the wrong idea to me about what love was. So for many years, I thought that love was supposed to hurt. And I hurt everyone that I loved. And I measured love by how much pain someone would take from me. And it wasn’t until I came to prison, in an environment that is devoid of love, that I began to have some sort of understanding about what it actually was and it was not. And I met someone. And she gave me my first real insight into what love was, because she saw past my conditions, and the fact that I was in prison with a life sentence for murder, and not only murder, but for doing the worst kind of murder that a man can do: murdering a woman and a child. And it was Agnes… the mother and grandmother of Patricia and Chris, the woman and the child that I murdered, that gave me my best lesson about love… because by all rights she should hate me. But she didn’t. And over the course of time, through the journey that we took… it has been pretty amazing. She gave me love. She taught me what it was.
The subjects interviewed generally remain anonymous and the names of places are undisclosed (unless you choose to turn on the closed caption viewing, which I’d recommend not doing). There are no divisions made by geographical location; language and ethnic background have no relevance here. The interviews are separated only according to the topic of discussion. Each interviewee looks the camera, and us, directly in the eye as they tell their story. Background settings are all neutral, detaching people from their environment. This not only lends focus to the stories themselves by eliminating background distractions, but helps to unite the stories into a singular vision of humanity.
Human is split into 3 volumes, each of around an hour and a half long. The topics span not only love, but war, immigration, homophobia, gender, happiness and family. Bertrand also touches on consumerism, freedom and inequality. He offers no commentary, but acknowledges that he has made certain political statements in the deliberate structuring of the film. For example, the direct juxtaposition of the incredibly wealthy to those in extreme poverty, or feminist vs. misogynistic viewpoints, send a clear message about his personal beliefs. One man offers his definition of poverty to us:
It’s when I have to go to school, but I can’t go. When I have to eat, but I can’t. When I have to sleep, but I can’t. When my wife and children suffer. I don’t have an efficient intellectual level to get us out of this situation, me or my family. I feel really poor. Physically poor, mentally poor. And you rich people who listen to me, what do you have to say about your wealth?
This question is answered directly in the next interview by a glossy, heavily made-up woman, who tells us: “With money, what matters to me, is that it gives you freedom. Having money means not thinking about it, getting whatever you want… If you want to buy something, such as a car, you don’t need to worry for nights on end whether you can buy it. It lets you be free; have things which give you pleasure. All these things make your life more comfortable and easy-going. They give you a better life.”
Interspersed between the interviews are crushingly beautiful aerial shots that have been filmed all over the world, ranging from nature in its purest form – a ferocious storm or a flock of birds migrating over the ocean – to horrifying sights of heaped waste disposal plants and overpopulated cities. The sweeping landscapes and crowded cityscapes demonstrate the diversity and scale of the world that we all live in; they give perspective and help to contextualise the human experience as a whole.
An interview with the legendary former president of Uruguay, José “Pepe” Mujica, concludes the first volume – a man who famously gave the majority of his presidential income to charity. He offers us a profound worldview:
The way we live and value our lives are the expression of the society we live in. And we cling to that. It doesn’t matter if I’m the president (of Uruguay). I’ve thought about all this a lot. I spent over 10 years in a solitary confinement cell. I had the time. I spent 7 years without opening a book. It left me time to think. This is what I discovered. Either you’re happy with very little, without overburdening yourself, because you have happiness inside, or you’ll get nowhere. I am not advocating poverty. I am advocating sobriety. But we invented a consumer society… which is continually seeking growth. When there’s no growth, it’s tragic. We invented a mountain of superfluous needs. You have to keep buying, throwing away… It’s our lives we are squandering. When I buy something, or when you buy it, we’re not paying with money. We’re paying with the time from our lives we had to spend to earn that money. That difference is that you can’t buy life. Life just goes by. And it’s terrible to waste your life losing your freedom.
So ends the first volume. Two more follow. The second focuses on war, and loss, alongside sexuality, religion and the afterlife. One man, speaking of his experience as a Palestinian who had never had an interaction with a Jew until taking a Hebrew class, tells us how this interaction taught him to see a human being instead of the enemy. He shares with us his revelation that “…we have to bring down those walls that separate us. And if we know each other a little better as humans? We also might be able to also love each other, instead of kill each other.” This echoes Bertrand’s very aim in making the documentary – to help us to understand each other better, as humans.
I’ll stop. The real power of Human lies not in the words of those interviewed, but in their bare honesty; the visible joy and pain displayed on each person’s face as they share their story with us. As Bertrand says: “There is a proverb that says the eyes are the mirror of the soul. I believe it to be so. For there is nothing more compelling than someone looking you in the eye and bearing their soul. Every new encounter is a step forward and every story is unique.”
Go, watch it now. Just make sure you hydrate yourself thoroughly first.