2,000 Voices Answer “What Is It to Be Human?”
Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s HUMAN (2015) presents an epic journey into the roots of humanity in each of us.
What does “human being” mean to us today? Belonging to a zoological species? Sharing a set of cultural values and practices? Are there irrational or ideological beliefs about common origins? Or, on the other hand, is humanity the result of a long process of cultural evolution toward the construction of plural identities?
The question of humanity doesn’t lend itself to a simple answer. Environmentalist and documentarian, Yann Arthus-Bertrand opened the question to the widest possible audience through a film, HUMAN, which premiered simultaneously at the United Nations General Assembly and was then distributed by YouTube under a free-access license.
Although multiple versions of the film are available, the “standard” three-hour version consists of several series of interviews with people from very different backgrounds. From French farmers to convicted teenagers, and from combat nurses to children in extreme poverty and radical extremists, the project seems nourished by the idea of listening to the voice in everyone. In all their crudeness, the similarities and differences between spectator and others are evident.
This idea of plurality and otherness had been explored in one of Arthus-Bertrand’s previous works. 7 Billion Others asked the 40 questions answered by more than 2,000 volunteers in HUMAN. The questions cover all kinds of issues, on topics like war and peace, inequality, love, family, education and the future of the world.
The interviews seen on the screen provide no indication of the identities of the persons speaking. We don’t know the names, ages, nationalities or religions of those who appear unless the respondents indicate them. The apparent invisibility of the identities of the subjects on the stage is, for the director, one way of listening more attentively to the stories they tell.
This shouldn’t be confused with some idea of a false objectivity. The questionnaire itself sets up patterns of argument and ideology, seemingly without leading the subjects to answer or to soften issues that could be dangerous and even illegal in their countries of origin. For example, homosexuality, homicide, and extramarital affairs are covered. The questionnaire, rather than normalizing all the topics that come up, serves as a common starting point for participants to open up according to their own needs and availabilities.
It’s a powerful exploration of the ways people deal with emotions, sometimes in terrifying specificity. Combatants and ex-combatants relay terrible experiences, as do criminals sentenced to life imprisonment. These experiences contrast with others having to do with the creation of families and cultural ties, with the role of climate in the lives of communities (an ongoing concern of the director). All of these are intermingled with impressive aerial landscapes and these then provide a time of reflection for viewers. As Arthus-Bertrand put it, peering into the human mirror can be exhausting, but also revealing.
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