The film opens with a remarkable aerial view of a line of ant-like figures moving slowly along an incline in a desert, the men and beasts casting shadows that bears no semblance to their shapes or sizes. “Human”, a documentary by Yann-Arthus Bertrand, has many such breath-taking frames. Not surprisingly perhaps, as he is reportedly one of the best in the field of aerial photography. But “Human’ is not about that. It is a peek into one’s own soul, the myriad emotions that have been in play since the beginning of time as we know it, that have driven and depressed us, tweaked our heart-strings and made it sing, flung us into fires and kept us in fetters, darkened our desires , made us love and hate , made us scared and insecure, strong and resilient, weak and vulnerable , ripped us asunder with guilt and made whole again with love. In short, it is precisely about what the title says ; it is about what it means to be human.
The canvas is stretched across continents and the painting encompasses all colours and contours of the human race. Faces that beckon you compellingly to look at them , their eyes staring unblinkingly at you from the screen in silent monologues and faces that speak to you making you revel at times in the uniqueness of being alive and the vastness of our potential for goodness and joy and at other times squirm at the degree of defilement that we are capable of.
What brought me to this film was an excerpt posted on the Facebook wall of one of my friends. It was an interview of Jose Mujica, President of Uruguay from 2010 to 2015. This is what he said, “ I am Jose Mujica. I worked in the fields as a farmer to make a living in the first part of my life. Then I dedicated myself to the struggle for change, to improve life in my society and now I am the President and tomorrow , like everyone else, I’ll be just a pile of worms and disappear.” He goes on to tell us what his churnings in life, ten years of which had been spent in solitary confinement (seven years without reading a single book) had led him to conclude. “ This is what I discovered”, he says, “Either you are happy with very little, free of all that extra luggage because you have happiness inside or you don’t get anywhere……we have invented a mountain of superfluous needs, shopping for new, discarding the old. That’s a waste of our lives. When you buy something you’re not paying money for it, you’re paying with the hours of life you had to spend earning that money. The difference is that life is the one thing that money can’t buy”. This and everything else he said made so much sense to me that I just had to find out more about the film from which this excerpt was taken.
I was pleasantly surprised to find all three volumes of this documentary, each stretching on for over an hour, is available for public viewing on the You Tube.
As those interviewed speak, looking into the camera and so straight at us, sharing their experiences about love, loss, death, poverty, war, guilt and redemption , as they pause to control their emotions and check their tears, as they grow silent with the weight of the feelings that overwhelm them , as their eyes light up with joy and the calm of wisdom gained through trauma and tribulations tone their words with gentleness, we experience all of it too…. the proximity that is generated is such.
When Leonard from U.S.A talks about how he finally understood what love means from the woman who was the mother and grandmother of the woman and child he had killed, the tears that start streaming down his cheeks haunt you for a very long time.
When Sylver from Ruanda rakes up his tormented memories of his family members being hacked to death with a matchette, the shudder that runs through your spine doesn’t ease your guilt.
When Crepin from the Central African Republic tells us that he took to arms to avenge his brother’s death and that killing now gives him a sense of calm, you shudder again.
Zoher from Israel , “ One evening, while in the reserves, my unit had to stop a suicide attack by capturing a terrorist in a village near Nablus. I deployed our forces. To flush him out, we shot at the walls as a demonstration of our strength. A woman came out of the house carrying a girl and holding another by the hand. It was 3 A.M. The girl panicked and ran towards us. I was afraid she would blow herself up. I yelled at her in Arabic to stop. She kept on coming. I fired above her head. She stopped. At that moment time stood still. It was the shortest and longest moment of my life. The girl remained alive. So did I. At the same time, something died in us both. When a child is shot at, it kills something inside. I don’t know what. When an adult shoots at a child, it kills something inside. Something dies and something else has to come to life. I was ashamed of shooting at her. A painful shame. And above all this sensation of my finger pressing the trigger and shooting at the girl. From this finger pressing the trigger something had to come to life” and he turns his head away from the camera saying a lot with what he left unsaid.
These are not scripted conversations. They are raw and unrehearsed …naked slices of truth cut out from real experiences . Everything that may have seemed distant and disconnected is brought uncomfortably close to confront and unsettle you . You can no longer delineate yourselves from the other. You become the other and for a short time at least, you are forced to look beyond the shadows and focus your vision on the reality of human existence plodding through the sands of time.
The link to the film.
Nadira is a best selling author and cinephile. She lives in Bangalore.