It’s too late for pessimism – we need action, says Human director Yann Arthus-Bertrand

Yann Arthus-Bertrand, photo: Michaela Čejková / Festival One World

It is perhaps fitting that the Human by Yann Arthus-Bertrand is the only film to have had its premiere at the UN General Assembly. Based on over 2,000 interviews shot around the globe, the documentary does nothing less than attempt to capture mankind in three hours and 20 minutes. Arthus-Bertrand intersperses testimonies on everything from war to love with stunning images of nature, reflecting his background as a pioneer of aerial photography. When we spoke at Prague’s One World festival of human rights documentaries I asked the French director about the genesis of Human.

Yann Arthus-Bertrand, photo: Michaela Čejková / One World festival
“We began this project of interviews around the planet in 2002, and we have already done 9,000 interviews or something like that. It was for an exhibition called Seven Billionth Other – you can see it a lot of it on the internet.

“And three years ago I decided to make a movie mixing everything I love to do – when you are 70, you like to do what you want and what you like [laughs].

“I decided to mix what I have been doing for many years – these interviews and aerial photography.

“Also I’m an activist. Have you seen the movie Home, for example?

“It’s about the state of the planet and I was a little bit fed up filming ecological disaster – the climate change problem, deforestation, ice melting and man’s impact on the planet.

“This makes you very depressed, because nothing changes in any case. We live in denial – we don’t want to understand what we know. Everybody knows what is going to happen, but we don’t want to believe in it.

“You know I think it’s the first time in the story of humanity that the future is very uncertain. When you read the numbers on TV and in the newspapers, the numbers are bad about everything.

“And I feel comfortable talking to the heart of people. I’m trying to understand why we cannot live together – when I think we can.

“It was easier for me to send a love message than an ecological message. Because everybody understands what love is. Everybody wants to be loved. It’s a movie about that.”

On what basis did you select the interviewees, the subjects of your film?

“This movie is a bit of a political movie, meaning we want to understand why we go to war, for example. So we went to South Africa, Cambodia, Rwanda, Ukraine, Palestine, Syria and Iraq. We decided to interview people who are involved in war.

“When I was working on homophobia for example, I was interviewing people who suffered from homophobia.

“When we speak about poverty… you know, two-thirds of the poorest people on the planet are farmers. So I wanted to speak to farmers.

“When we speak about refugees, I went to Calais, to Greece, to Sicily.

“But also the taxi driver taking you from the hotel to the airport can be a good subject. So can the woman cleaning your room or a friend you meet at a bar.

“You too could be somebody good for us [laughs]. I think everybody has something to say.”

The viewer looks straight into the eyes of the subjects, sometimes for many minutes. What does that to the viewer, when they’re forced to look at somebody, straight in their eyes, for a longer period than is normal with TV or films or any kind of moving images?

“I think it is a mistake when you interview people not to have them look at the camera. Always.

“Even when I was doing my show on TV I asked people to look at the camera.

“In fact when you talk to somebody and you say something important, you look in their eyes; you don’t look at the ground.

“And I think what people say in the movie is very important, so they were looking into the eyes of the viewer. I think it’s normal. The contrary is not normal.”

Why did you choose that length? It’s over three hours. Does it force the viewer to kind of slow down and really engage with the film?

'Human', photo: GoodPlanet Foundation
“You know, the first movie was 12 hours. Three hours was the shortest I could do [laughs]. And I think three hours, 20 minutes is not enough to explain humanity.

“This movie is not entertainment. It’s not something to make you laugh and forget your life – in fact this movie is to think about your life. So it’s not an easy movie. I know that.

“Sometimes people hate it. Some people stay for 20 minutes or an hour and they leave. Sometimes people love it – and when you love it in fact you want more.”

What would you say is the essential political message of the film?

“Love, love, love. We need love to live on the planet. Love is the key. There’s no other key.”

But you’re also speaking about war, about refugees. You do have a position – it’s more than just love, I think.

“No, no. Love means everything. It’s about looking around you with less skepticism – less cynically and ready to understand.

“You know everybody needs love, to be loved. It’s perhaps ridiculous to say, it’s simple, but when you are full of love for others…

“When I last was talking to my very old aunt, who is 98 and very optimistic and full of life, and I asked her, How do you do it?

“She said, It’s very easy, Yann, you don’t think too much about yourself – you think about others.

“And I think that’s completely right. You have to think about others, not so much about yourself. We think too much about ourselves – all day long [laughs].”

The film was premiered at the UN General Assembly. Did it get a particularly strong reaction from people from some particular parts of the world?

'Human', photo: GoodPlanet Foundation
“You know, we have the politics we deserve. Today we live in a democracy and the politicians are like us. In fact they are worse than us.

“Can you imagine you are president and every day in your office you have to deal with refugees, with the economic crisis, factories that are closing – you have so many things you have to do.

“It’s difficult to have a vision for years in front of you. And I don’t think the UN can do anything today.

“But I was very impressed that Ban Ki-moon was looking at the movie for two hours and 40 minutes – he was very involved.

“The UN is a symbol and I don’t think it can do anything. They can’t stop the war in Syria – they can’t do something so easy. Or remember two years ago when there were missiles on Gaza every day.

“I used to talk to Ban Ki-moon at that time and I said, Why can’t you do something in Gaza? He said, Yann, you don’t understand – I’m only the secretary of presidents, I’m not the big chief of the world.

“All these states have no heart. There’s no humanity in the government.

“Look at my country. We have a big NGO like Médecins Sans Frontières, Doctors Without Borders, but also we are the third biggest sellers of arms on the planet. It’s ridiculous.”

Are you optimistic at all for the future of humankind?

“I think it’s too late to be pessimistic. There’s no way to think optimistically or not – we need actions.

“At the end of Human you have a small black guy living in Kinshasa. He’s living on the street. He’s what they call a witch child – they’re put out of the family because they put the ‘black eye’ on the family.

'Human', photo: GoodPlanet Foundation
“He says, Everybody has a mission on the planet and I have to find it.

“This guy is 13, he’s living in the street, he has no future, no education – and he knows that he has a mission.

“I think what he says is so clever. Everybody has a mission and everybody can do something. The way you live is very important, in your private life.”

After everything we have been speaking about my last question is probably rather mundane, but since you started doing aerial photography that whole field has changed radically with the arrival of cheap drones. How do you view the rise of the drones?

“I’m very interested in drones. We’re trying a lot to work with drones. But drones today are not like a camera inside a helicopter.

“You can do some fantastic images with drones. In fact there’s an amazing shot on YouTube of Aleppo in Syria made by a drone.

“It’s an amazing thing. Because you cannot shoot [there] with a helicopter – and also the drone was flying inside the street.

'Human', photo: GoodPlanet Foundation
“But with the work I’m doing now – really working on the frame – drones are not enough at the present time. We tried using drones on Chernobyl but it was not very good.”

You don’t think they’re getting out of control? I’ve seen them being marketed as toys, as gifts for teenagers.

“I think we are going to do some amazing things with drones. It’s only the beginning of what is going to happen.”