Human, like its director, is many things. A sweeping three hour plus surge through the voiceless (the original cut ran to 12 hours), it raises issues from gender discrimination to sexuality, violence, poverty and everything between, divided by the stunning aerial photography that first made Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s name. A documentary of graceful simplicity opening windows to multiple worlds we know about but rarely see, it’s emotionally complex agitprop, a guttural roar to action smoothed over with high definition photography capturing every ridge and hollow on the face of participants.
Interviews, in which the subjects, all from disenfranchised areas of the world, sit talking about a traumatic or particularly important element of their lives, make up the bulk of the film. With only the upper torso on display against a blank background, the interviewees provide sometimes graphic detail on their struggles. A gay man recounts the time he was beaten by the friends of someone he’d invited back to his house, while an elderly woman tells the camera she killed her husband after years of abuse that threatened her entire family.
There are some spectacular and unsettling revelations along the way. One man discusses the thrill that comes from killing, a thrill he’s had to work hard not to seek. A gay woman tells of her grandmother’s disapproval that worried her so much she asked a friend to pretend to be her partner. He agreed and promptly raped her. It’s bleak subject matter but not without hope. Amidst all the suffering, there’s resilience and human kindness. An old tribesman welcomes all to his house, while a poor black American jokes about switching lives for a day just to see what it’s like.
Broadly split into chapters in which the same issue is dealt with by a group of interviewees, Human breaks up the divide with more of the sweeping aerial footage we’ve come to expect from Arthus-Bertrand the environmental activist, the man who gave us the Earth from Above series and 2009 film Home. It can sometimes be a disconcerting switch, but it does add a little dynamism into a format that risks feeling repetitive. He manages to keep the heart of the film beating when it threatens to drag.
This move towards people, while significantly more intimate in nature, is really just a continuation of the key theme he’s focussed on over the latter half of his life. The world is in trouble, all our own doing, but it’s not too late. Human isn’t an answer, it’s the start of conversation we must have.
Director: Yann Arthus-Bertrand
Runtime: 188 min