While in rural Mali, Yann Arthus-Bertrand‘s helicopter unexpectedly broke down. As repairs were being completed, the filmmaker spent his day talking with a local farmer. They exchanged their personal hopes, priorities, and concerns to know what really shapes life.
He said, “It was the first time I had ever been confronted with really finding out about a person’s life and experiences.”
Now Arthus-Bertrand is trying to share his experience to the world through the film HUMAN. Of course, he was helped by 2,020 willing subjects, the United Nations, and Google.
On September 12, 2015, HUMAN made history as the first-ever movie to premiere in the United Nations’s General Assembly Hall. It was applauded by more than 1,000 viewers, including UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
On that same day, Google launched six YouTube channels all dedicated to HUMAN alone. Each channel offered the same film but subtitled in different languages, such as Spanish, English, Arabic, Portuguese, Russian, and French. The six channels also host several features about the film that covers its beginning, the making, as well as its music.
While theatrical distribution is still pending in the United States, HUMAN can be viewed in 500 different French theaters. Also, the filmmaker’s nonprofit organization, GoodPlanet Foundation, will be providing free copies of the film and some other debate materials for NGOs and schools all over the world. He said, “Hopefully, it will be a film that opens the discussion.”
During the genesis of HUMAN, Arthus-Bertrand and his team of journalists traveled to interview about 2,020 people in 60 countries. Every interview had 40 questions, which covered controversial topics about education, religion, family, failures, and ambitions. Below are some of the questions asked to the respondents:
- When is the last time you said “I love you” to your parents?
- What is the toughest trial you have had to face and what did you learn from it?
The film features scattered single-frame interviews, some sweeping shots of mountains and deserts that the filmmaker is noted for, as well as the soundtrack of world music that was composed by Armand Amar.
According to Arthus-Bertrand, it was Terrence Malick‘s Tree of Life and Godfrey Reggio‘s Koyaanisqatsi that influenced him to do the film. He also added that his film is more like “a portrayal of the world through three voices: people, landscape, and traditional music.”
“Getting at the heart of what it means to be a human can be a little heavy. The aerial images give you a respite, a moment to reflect on what has been said before,” he stated.
Despite the real emotions reflected in the film, there is one thing that HUMAN does not offer—firm background. The film simply cuts between landscapes and interviews without even providing the name of the person, his language, or his country.
However, the filmmaker explained that he wanted to remove personal identifiers that will possibly emphasize people’s personalities. He explained, “We wanted to concentrate on what we all share. If you put the name of a person or what the country they’re from, you don’t feel that as strongly.”
Arthus-Bertrand knows that HUMAN isn’t an objective portrayal of his subjects’ value. All questions included in the interview were chosen by his team, and some of which dug deeper into the personal views of people about the cost of war and homosexuality.
Although he called it “quite a political movie,” he said his values were also incorporated in the film. He noted, “There are 70 countries in the world where homosexuality is forbidden, and 20 where you can face a death sentence. People didn’t want to talk about it, but it is my duty.”
The filmmaker also understands that it is his responsibility to look for participants, who could properly articulate liberal values. For that, he was able to highlight some of the most compelling opinions through an unexpected perspective like that of a medical professional deployed in a war zone opening up about homosexuality and that of a rural farmer speaking about raising a handicapped child. Arthus-Bertrand explained further, “I would interview some for a reason, and they would tell us about something else entirely.”
A Veteran and a Person
Sean Davis was among the subjects who were interviewed. So he took the opportunity to share his story.
For 14 years, Sean served as an infantryman. When he was severely injured by an IED in Iraq, he explored a whole new identity as a soldier and an artist. Since then, he has worked a lot to become the voice of various combat veterans to promote public consciousness. When he was asked for an interview for HUMAN, he thought it was a nice way to push his cause.
Despite being a combat veteran, his survey wasn’t dominated about his duties during the war. He was also interviewed about insecurity and love.
Davis said, “I’m not a two-dimensional guy who was given a gun and became a robot in the military. As a combat veteran, to be asked about love—that was really surprising. Feelings and flaws are the first things we should talk to returning veterans about, but we usually don’t talk about them at all.”
Through HUMAN, Davis is looking forward to seeing how people from different walks of life go on with their daily lives. He said, “You see a person—not only combat veterans, but everybody—in a certain role, but they’re a person just like you.”
Arthus-Bertrand is hoping that Davis’s message will make the viewers aware about their responsibilities to each other. Though it seems to be a lofty goal, it is still something that everyone must consider. After all, we all live on the same planet, and we all build our lives around.