In 2009, Thomas A. Østbye won the Golden Chair, the main award, at the Grimstad short film festival for his 25-minute documentary Human. In the film, various people speak about their lives, set against a neutral, black backdrop, akin to a Jørgen Leth-inspired documentary with a distinct humanistic message. This makes the audience reflect on what it means to be human.
Large scale. Østbye’s film and Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s current Human have more than just the title in common. In his three-hour documentary, the French photo journalist and film maker also let people from around the world tell their stories straight to the camera, set against a neutral, black background – although the close-ups are more frequent and consistent than its Norwegian counterpart. Here too, the result turns into a sort of appeal for spectator’s empathy and humanity, plus a deliberation on humanity in general and the importance of humanity in particular. The scale is considerably greater in Arthus-Bertrand’s film, whose project is on a completely different scale. Apparently, some 2,020 people were interviewed for the film, all of whom were asked identical questions, during a recording period spanning two years and 60 countries. Despite the fact that the lengthy film features a great many people, an enormous amount of material must have been left out of the final cinematic version.
Multi-media project. Human is, however, also a multi-media project, where shorter as well as longer versions are digitally distributed. In fact, an extended version is available to watch for free on YouTube, split into three parts each lasting one and a half hours. The incredibly ambitious project is produced by the idealistic organisations Bettencourt Schueller Foundation, which is also responsible for the funding, and GoodPlanet Foundation. Human is offered in various forms for non-commercial distribution, in addition to an ordinary cinema launch. In this with this, in September the film was screened at UN’s annual general meeting in New York, parallel with its international premiere at the Venice film festival. The film version won the top prize at Oslo’s Eurodok documentary film festival last month, and was prior to this screened at the Bergen International Film Festival. At the end of April, it will form part of the regular film distribution.
Bird’s eye view. The Human interview sequences are regularly interrupted by pictures which in a more concrete manner depict the world and humanity from a bird’s eye view, and function similarly to chapter divisions in the film. Arthus-Bertrand is an experienced aerial photographer, and the film’s panoramic aerial photographic sequences shot all over the world are breathtakingly beautiful. There is a sense that these images follow a development curve from the natural to the man-made, although not consistently done. Similarly to the landscape images, the various interviewee portraits are surprisingly beautiful in all their human variety. These are people from every part of the world, with a direct gaze into the camera; they share their stories in their many languages – without any concrete information about their identities or backgrounds. This way we are forced to only acknowledge their faces, and what they are actually telling us.
Touching diversity. The interviews are so far reaching, but it still possible to feel that they to a certain degree are separated thematically. According to the film maker, he chose poverty, war, immigration and homophobia as the film’s main themes, and this has led to some preferences and constraints. Despite this, he allows the interviewees express everything that is said in the film, without adding a narrator or the questions being asked. This leads to some incredibly moving moments, from a fairly dark introduction where people are talking about their experiences with war, murder and even genocide. The many intense first person accounts include a man whose life improved after he became handicapped, and another who discovered love through meeting the families of people he murdered. An elderly Jewish woman explains how she, as a child, was saved during Second World War, by a German soldier. A Palestinian man tells how his young daughter became the innocent victim of the Israeli conflict, then explaining that it is not his right to avenge her. A woman explains how it is to support herself and her family through prostitution, another about growing old without a family. We are told about hunger, poverty and a life on the run – but also about falling in love, unity and zest for life, from a rich tapestry of people: young and old, from different social echelons and cultures, and a diversity of big and small experiences.
As a cinematic experience, Human is almost exhausting, as the various stories and human meetings experience such a wide spectre of feelings.
Surely there has to be some political power in compassion, if people all the way to minister levels express a fear of the alleged tyranny of goodness?
Common destiny. The aerial photographs which split the various interview chains are accompanied by powerful and atmospheric music, which also come from all over the world. Given our neighbouring nation’s propensity for making a mark for itself on the international music scene, there is no surprise that one of the tracks is in Swedish. But for the patriotic among us would be happy to learn that Norway is represented through images from Svalbard. But now I am not only being silly, I am even somewhat petty which in a way goes against the film’s message about unity in a common destiny, and in our divided humanity. The magnificent panoramic images further create a contrasting impact between the collective and the individual. However, the interviews’ variety and diversity create a form of higher unit, where certain common features reappear, and where humanity is portrayed as, precisely, a house share. And this way the film in a way enable us to look humanity in the eyes.
Powerful. As stated, it is hard not reaching for the superlatives when writing about this film. But then this is an incredibly beautiful and powerful film experience, which in addition is very unique – despite sharing its title with a 2009 Norwegian short film.As a cinematic experience, Human is almost exhausting, as the various stories and human meetings experience such a wide spectre of feelings. However, this turns into a somewhat cleansing effect for the spectator, which is unlikely to be as strong if watching it piecemeal and digitally. Seen as one, it is almost impossible not to reflect on what exactly is important in life.
The power of empathy. Human could be said to display a little «new age»-naivety, in addition such a project is in danger of becoming so-called disaster-porn – where we as spectators gain a certain satisfaction in the feelings awoken in us by such heartbreaking narratives. This is, however, counteracted by the portraits’ stylistic sobriety which is marked by dignity rather than sentimentality, in addition to evoking the sort of empathy which can create a genuine will to change. Surely, there has to be some political power in compassion, if people all the way to minister levels – who should do well in watching this film – express a fear of the alleged tyranny of goodness? Human truly is a humanistic film project, which, in all its excessive simplicity, brings us a little closer. And that is no small feat.