A few weeks ago, I went to the Nutshuis in the center of The Hague to watch a documentary called Human directed by Yann Arthus-Bertrand. This 2015 documentary, presented by Alliance Francaise La Haye (French Alliance of The Hague) explores what it means to be human world wide.
It started out as a festive evening. Rows of wooden chairs draped invitingly with red blankets stood in the garden. Of the 40 or so people who attended, I personally knew half a dozen and my friend Joanna introduced me to half a dozen more. The glass of wine in my hand, easy conversation and a dark blue sky peppered with clouds created the perfect alchemy for an uplifiting evening.
Before the film started, Françoise Bernard, the editor and co-director of the film was interviewed by a member of Alliance Francaise La Haye. They sat before the audience and spoke intensively with one another in French. Although I couldn’t understand the details, the few French words I know paired with the cognates that popped out of the dialogue allowed me to vaguely follow the conversation. I understood the words emotion, world, love, planet, poverty, human.
Even though I had watched the trailer and knew full well that I was in for an emotionally heavy evening, my mind shrugged it off, leaving me unprepared for what was to come.
From the very beginning, the film entered me like a bolt of awareness. Within minutes, people in the audience, including myself, were sniffling, blowing their noses and wiping tears away from their eyes. And we were only 10 minutes in. God were we in for a journey.
The people being interviewed on the screen seemed to be having a personal monologue with me, rather than the reporters who interviewed them. The journalists were not shown, nor were their voices heard, resulting in a sort of one-way conversation with the interviewee. Their foreign words, translated into English and presented in white text against a black background, pushed right through whatever natural barriers society might have trained me to erect to protect myself from their emotion.
If a dear friend were to talk to me so directly, I would still be in a frame of mind to listen while formulating a response to share with them; words that would somehow benefit them, offer hope or counsel, or perhaps I would offer silence as a form of support. This interview format was so effective that you could not formulate a response. All you could do was listen and absorb and realize that these total strangers from foreign cultures are undeniably tied directly to you in the very act of being human.
Their fears became my fears: I too was concerned for their children who have no food, their land that had dried up, rendering it useless as a means of sustenance, their struggles with homosexuality in an unforgiving culture or family, their tragic childhood situations. When they shared their definitions of love, happiness and poverty, my definition of these terms expanded through their experience. I felt ultra sensitive to what all of these humans were sharing with me as if they were pleading their case directly to me, and I must answer to them.
Human is overwhelming and of epic proportions. When I say epic, I don’t just mean long (143 minutes), but also in the way it confronts you. The directors must have been aware of this potential effect and taken a bit of pity on their potential viewers. This pity came in the form of breathtaking aerial footage of nature and people: a raging sea, a stretch of salt flats interspersed with blood red earth, children in traditional dress on horseback, galloping across vast high-mountain prairies, boys playing soccer among dirt and rocks on treacherous cliffs . Each scene provided both a reprieve from and a deepening of the monologues yet to come.
When the screen finally went black, I was both relieved and already mourning the end of this beautifully filmed journey into our shared humanity. That couldn’t really be the end. There must be a plan?
I spotted Françoise Bernard, the editor and co-director, surrounded by a small group of people. Even though it had been a long night and we were all a bit tired, I waited patiently until I had a chance to pose my own question.
“You made this wonderful, epic film about being human and the inequities in the world. What is your next step? Are there specific causes you are promoting? Is there a list on the website?”
I expected her to say “Yes, of course. This is just the beginning.” But no. Her answer went something like this.
We thought of selecting different charities or organizations that are addressing these issues, but it was too challenging to choose among them. Rather, the next step is what you can do about it within your own sphere of influence. She might as well have said “Be the change you want to see in the world.” A great slogan, but how do you actualize something like that?
Even though it was quite late, a handful of us needed to process the film and ended up finding a late night cafe to shelter us as we discussed the film together. Although we differed in our opinions about the techniques and length of the film, one thing was certain; we were all overwhelmed by what we had taken in, and shared a common desire to do something about it.
As we discussed our various spheres of influence, we realized that each of us can do something every day to positively effect the lives of others. Most of the people at the table were already activists in one form or another, working on issues of climate change, care for the ocean, nuclear disarmament, education and organizing charity events.
On top of that, a lot of the solutions had to do with money: choosing Fair Trade or Fair Chain products, putting our money in banks like ASN that only invest in companies that meet their stringent principles, being politically aware and active, reducing our carbon footprint, attending fundraisers for small-scale initiatives both here and abroad where money goes directly to improving the lives of others, helping those within our own lives. The list went on and on.
I wonder how you would react if you were to see the documentary human. Would you feel a need to change the world? Would you believe you could?