Film as an experience: On 'Human', an Audience Award winner at Egypt's European Panorama

Menna Taher, Monday 7 Dec 2015

Many films have created a buzz at this year’s Panorama of the European Film, yet the audience gave the documentary film 'Human' its highest rating

(Photo: 4 stills from the film Human)

The 8th edition of the Panorama of European Film came to a close on Wednesday 5 December with the French documentary Human by the French photographer YannArthus-Bertrand, which was screened as the audience choice.

There were many films that garnered audience attention and discussion this year, with many having a full house theatre, including Mustang, Victoria, Amy, The Lobster, Tale of Tales and The Narrow Frame of Midnight.

One has to wonder why a documentary film (Human) received the audience choice award...

A plethora of human experiences

It is a film that is both uplifting and direct about the harsh realities of the world. Perhaps in such a politically and socially tense climate, audience members were craving a reminder of why we are here and what makes us human.

Human is definitely a very ambitious endeavor. Watching it is more of an experience than it is watching a movie. It is a celebration of humanity and what it means to be a human being. Hearing all these languages and seeing this massive amount of faces in the time-frame of three hours, one cannot help but be overwhelmed. For one thing, it makes one feel so insignificant, just one human among all those lives, but it also gives one a grandiose feeling of being part of this collective whole.

This is a film that could have easily fallen in the cheesy trap of the United Colors of Benetton type of sloganish style. However, the scale of the subjects used and the wide variety of experiences that are shared – from the heart-wrenching, to the redemptive, angry, happy and uplifting – gave the film its depth and profundity.

While making the documentary, the crew interviewed 2020 people from 60 different countries and asked them the same 40 questions related to love, war, happiness and the meaning of life. There were people living in warzones, refugees, farmers, gays and lesbians, people who have lost limbs, people battling poverty, mourning a loved one, street children, a young black American facing a life sentence, people that have witnessed massacres and tortures, from each and every part of the globe.

The documentary alternates between close-ups of faces against a black screen and tremendous aerial wide shots of nature and humans doing collective actions. One such great shot was of a huge mass of Chinese people bathing in the sea with almost no space between them, and one huge wave comes and lifts the people up consecutively.

It is no surprise that the filmmaker is both an environmentalist and a specialist in aerial photography. The images of the earth, the colourful fields, the running streams and flocks of birds flying over the ocean are all astounding, and watching them in a cinema is just breathtaking.

Although the film has a very clear message of making the human experience as one collective whole, he does not fail to show the injustice in this world.

The many faces of injustice

In one very telling part, he interviews farmers about their water crisis and the draught they are living in. Then an Indian journalist talks about twin towers in Mumbai and how both of them, many storeys high, have a swimming pool in each floor.

What is most aggravating is that those who built the swimming pools are the same farmers who had to leave the land because of the lack of water.

Another man, an aboriginal with a very big white beard, says that the most generous people he knows are the ones that have no money. He says that in their language they do not have the words “please” and “thank you” because sharing is what is expected from the other people in the community.

The former president of Uruguay Jose Mujica (in office between 2010 and March 2015) was also present in the film. Perhaps what he says is nothing new and also very self-evident, but sometimes such very simple and apparent truths are lost in our day-to-day life. He had faced imprisonment for 10 years and also spent seven years without reading a single book, which made him think a lot.

What he says is that people will always be unsatisfied and unhappy if they keep pursuing material gains. With that, he does not apologise for poverty or justifies it. He talks about consumerism and how that race towards more things leads to the waste of precious time to live.

In a great editing choice, what follows Jose’s words is huge buildings lit up at night in what looks like a financial district with offices stacked next to one another with shadows of people sitting inside.

Although the film gathers many opinions and is not biased as many interviewees had very different opinions, this part gave off the impression that this conflict was a misunderstanding between two sides more than a conflict that has to do with oppressors and the oppressed.

However, to give the makers credit, there was also an interview of an extreme misogynist along with other talks about women’s issues.

Some distinctive interviews include one woman that talks about being a nun and not knowing how much she had sacrificed until she has attended the funeral of her sister and saw her sister’s family mourning, knowing that at her own funeral she will not have that.

Another subject is a man with no arms and legs who talks about finding love after a long search. Another is a young boy raised in the streets and is not afraid of death, while yet another is a factory worker who lives under constant pressure and says at the end, “I’m exhausted.”

Although some stories are more impactful than others, it is still difficult to single out specific cases because the film works as one whole experience. It is more moving because of its collective mood.

This is perhaps what the astronomer Carl Sagan was aspiring to do when he made the Golden Records that were sent on the Voyager spacecraft. The records, which were sent with the hope that if extraterrestrial life exists somewhere, it would get a glimpse of life on earth through pictures and sounds from our planet, as well as music from all over the globe and a greeting in numerous languages.

If Human had been made during Carl Sagan’s time, perhaps he would have sent it in the Golden Records instead.

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