Planet and people
“I’m just trying to make a difference in this planet,” French filmmaker Yann Arthus-Bertrand said diffidently over a casual lunch with environmentalists, French Embassy officers, and members of the media.
In the country recently for the showing of his film “Human” and to scout for locales and interviewees for a planned new movie, “Woman,” Arthus-Bertrand said that all his life he had been concerned with “humanism and ecology.” And while “Human” focuses mainly on men and women and their reflections on life, love, conflict, poverty and other issues at the heart of the human condition, his love for the environment is showcased in heart-stopping aerial photography (shot from hot-air balloons) that shows off the planet Earth in all its beauty and fascination.
In a foreword on a Blu-ray disc copy of “Human,” Arthus-Bertrand explains the genesis for this unprecedented acclaimed film project: “I am one man among seven billion others. For the past 40 years, I have been photographing our planet and its human diversity, and I have the feeling that humanity is not making any progress. We can’t always manage to live together.
“Why is that?
“I didn’t look for an answer in statistics or analysis, but in man himself.”
The search for answers to his questions took Arthus-Bertrand and his team around the globe for about three years, with him and his team of 16 journalists interviewing 2,020 people in 60 countries. The interviews take place in a variety of settings: Death Row in an American prison, remote villages in Africa, India, South America and other impoverished parts of the world, deserts and mountains, and even a densely packed wave pool in China with folks bobbing about in colorful inflatables.
The interrogators asked the subjects the same 40 questions, each interview “covering heavy subjects from religion and family (‘When was the last time you said I love you to your parents?’) to ambition and failure (‘What is the toughest trial you have had to face, and what did you learn from it?’)” Arthus-Bertrand says he starts filmmaking with no script, waiting until the editing stage to craft a movie from the kilometric reels he gathers in the course of filming. “A movie is waiting to be found in our work,” says the auteur, and so it is up to him and his team to find the “story” waiting to be told.
But, says the filmmaker, he would be most grateful if every member of the audience teases out for her/himself the personal meaning of the movie and takes out his/her own essential messages.
The stark, simple interviews, with the subjects shown against a dark background, are contrasted with the aerial shots, showing Earth and its patterns of dark and light, sun and shadow, seething seas, calming fields.
By turns, the viewer is moved and amused, angered and astonished. The movie doesn’t take sides, even as it features humans caught on opposite sides of ongoing conflicts, including those at home.
Arthus-Bertrand was designated Goodwill Ambassador of the UN Environment Program in 2009. This was in recognition of his work, since the first Rio Conference in 1992, to spread the word about the state of the planet and what we as humans can do about it. The first of his collaborations was a photography book, “The Earth from the Air,” which has so far sold over three million copies. He then put up the Goodplanet Foundation to raise even more awareness and action on environmental issues, creating films — “Home,” “Planet Ocean,” “A Thirsty World,” “Terra” — that moved on from covering the state of the planet to those examining the human condition.
These days, he works with numerous partners, including the Bettencourt Schueller Foundation that funded the filming of “Human,” and Google, which makes the documentary available on a wide range of platforms.
“Human” premiered in 2015 at the UN General Assembly Hall to an audience of 1,000, its impact replicated on various YouTube channels, and in film festivals in cities and towns in France. Here’s hoping “Human” finds a broader audience here, where certainly humanity and the environment are caught in a complicated embrace.
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