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To see humanity in the eyes

With its gigantic momentum, the cinematic documentary and the multimedia project Human brings us a little closer. 


Director and photographer: Yann Arthus-Bertrand

In 2009, Thomas A. Østbye won the Gold Chair, the main prize, at the short film festival in Grimstad for his 25 minutes long documentary Human. In the film, he had a selection of very different people talk about their lives against a neutral, black background, in a Jørgen Leth-inspired documentary with a distinct humanist message. And that caused the spectator to reflect on what it means to be human.

Large scale. Østbye's film has several similarities to Yann Arthus-Bertrand's cinema current Human than just the title. In just over three hours of documentary, the French photojournalist and filmmaker lets people from all over the world tell their stories right into the camera lens, against a neutral, black background – albeit in closer and more consistent close-ups than in the Norwegian film. Here, too, the result is a documentary that becomes a kind of appeal to the viewer's empathy and humanity, as well as a consideration of humanity in general and the importance of humanity in particular.
However, the scope is considerably larger in Arthus-Bertrand's film, which is a project of a completely different scale. Apparently, the entire 2020 people should have been interviewed for this film, all asking the same question, during a recording period that spanned more than two years and 60 different countries. Despite the fact that the film with its long playing time contains a lot of people, this must mean that a huge amount of material has been left out in the final movie version.

Multimedia Project. Human however, is also a multimedia project, where shorter as well as longer versions are distributed digitally. In fact, it's available for free on YouTube in an expanded version, split into three sections of about an hour and a half each.
The extraordinarily ambitious project is produced by the idealistic organizations Bettencourt Schueller Foundation, which also provided the funding, and the GoodPlanet Foundation. Human offered in various forms of non-commercial distribution, in addition to ordinary cinema launches. In line with this, the film was shown to the UN General Assembly in New York in September, in parallel with its international premiere at the Venice Film Festival. The film version won the main prize at the documentary festival Eurodok at the Cinematheque in Oslo last month, and has before this been shown at the Bergen International Film Festival here at home, before it is now set up in ordinary cinema distribution at the end of April.

Bird's Eye. The interview sequences in Human is regularly broken up by images that also in a more concrete sense show the world and humanity from a bird's perspective, and which function as a kind of chapter divisions in the film.
Arthus-Bertrand is an avid aerial photographer, and the panning aerial photography sequences filmed across the globe are almost breathtakingly magnificent. In part, one gets the feeling that these images follow a developmental curve from the natural to the man-made, even though this has not been completely consistently implemented.
Like the landscapes, the various portraits of the interviewees are strikingly beautiful, in all their human diversity. Here are people from all over the world, who with their eyes directly in the camera share their stories in their many languages ​​- without us being given any more concrete information about who they are or where they come from. This forces us to relate only to their faces and what they actually tell us.

Gripping diversity. The interviews cover so many things, but you still notice that they are to a certain extent thematically divided. According to the filmmaker, he has chosen poverty, war, immigration and homophobia as the film's main themes, and with this made some choices and laid some guidelines. Nevertheless, he allows the interviewees to express everything that is said in the film, without even adding any narrator's voice or letting us hear the questions they have been asked.
Out of this come some extremely moving moments, from a rather dark introduction where people talk about their experiences of war, murder and even genocide.
The many strong first-person stories include, among other things, a man who has had a better life after he became disabled, and another who has discovered what love is in meeting relatives of people he has killed himself. An elderly Jewish woman recounts how she was rescued as a small child during World War II by a German soldier. A Palestinian man recounts how his young daughter became an innocent victim of the conflict with Israel, only to explain that it is not his right to avenge her. One woman talks about having to support herself and her family through prostitution, another about what it is like to grow old without having started a family. We hear about hunger, poverty and life on the run – but also about falling in love, unity and joy of life, from a very rich selection of people: young and old, from many different social strata and cultures, and with a diversity of small and large experiences.

There must then be political power in compassion, if people right up to the ministerial level express fear of the alleged tyranny of goodness?

Common destiny. The aerial photos that divide the various sections with interviews are in turn accompanied by powerful and atmospheric music, which is also taken from different parts of the globe. Given our neighboring country's ability to stand out on the international music scene, it is perhaps not so surprising that one of these is sung in Swedish, but the patriotic can at least take comfort in the fact that Norway is represented through photos from Svalbard. But now I'm not only ragged, I've even moved out in petty comparisons that in a way contradict the film's message of unity in destiny, and in our shared humanity.
The magnificent panoramic images further create an effective contrast to the far more stripped-down and intimate interviews, which in turn can be seen as a contrast between the collective and the individual. But in its diversity and variety, the interviews also create a form of higher unity, where certain commonalities recur, and where humanity is portrayed precisely as a collective. And so the film lets us in a way face humanity.

Powerful. As it turns out, it's hard not to resort to big words when writing about this film. But then it is also a very beautiful and powerful film experience, which in addition must be said to be quite unique – despite the fact that it shares more than just its title with a Norwegian short film from 2009.
As a cinema experience becomes Human almost exhausting, as one goes through all these stories and human encounters through a fairly wide range of emotions. But this eventually also has a certain cleansing effect on the viewer, which is unlikely to be as strong if you see it piecemeal and digitally. In addition to the fact that, seen as a whole, it almost inevitably creates reflection on what is really important in life.

The power of empathy. Human can possibly be said to be a bit "new age" -naivistic, in addition such a project is in a certain danger of tipping over in so-called misery pornography – where we as audience members get a satisfaction of the feelings the heartbreaking stories arouse in us. However, this is offset by the fact that the portraits in their stylistic sobriety are characterized by dignity rather than sentimentality, and that they call for a form of empathy which in turn can create a genuine will to change. For there must then be political power in compassion, if people all the way up to ministerial level – who by the way would have benefited greatly from watching this film – express fear of the alleged tyranny of goodness?
Human is a truly humanistic film project, which in all its gigantic simplicity brings us a little closer together. And it is no small feat.

Human its Norwegian cinema premiere April 29th.

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