‘Human’: A Conversation With Yann Arthus-Bertrand

Yann Arthus-Bertrand comes down to earth at the Venice Film Festival and talks about his new film, Human.

Attempting to define Yann Arthus-Bertrand is a tricky business. Is the 69-year-old Frenchman a photographer, journalist, author, filmmaker, or environmental activist? It’s his stunning aerial photography, first practiced when he used to take tourists up in a hot air balloon in Kenya, which made his name. Environmental campaigning then cemented it. But it was his 1999 book, Earth From Above that helped bring his work to a mass audience, and the 2009 film Home that expanded this even further.

If I were to attempt to categorise his many professions, I’d badge him as an environmentalist above all else. His other work, especially in the past two decades, has been geared towards spreading the message that the world is in trouble. However, to watch his new film Human, that still seems insufficient. After years of showing us a unique perspective on the planet we seem hell bent on destroying, Arthus-Bertrand has come down to earth. Human, as the title suggests, takes people as its central theme. Aside from the sparse use as chapter dividers of the kind of sweeping landscapes we saw in Home, his new film keeps the camera firmly on people. A wide range of people drawn from across the world, all united by struggle.

The struggle varies; it could be gender equality, sexuality, poverty, or violence. Every individual, captured from the chest up, has a difficult story to tell. It might be the elderly woman who killed her husband after he beat all the family, or the gay man who was bottled when he invited someone back home with him. It could be the woman scraping around for only the most insubstantial amount of food, or the man battling against the thrill he got from killing when in the army. There’s no time for the privileged and well-off. They already have enough platforms. Arthus-Bertrand aims to give a voice to the voiceless, succeeding impressively over the course of a three hour plus film.

As I wait to speak to Arthus-Bertrand in Venice, where Human is due to play at the Film Festival, I can’t help but think there’s something disconcerting about the setting. Outside, the sun beats down on a luxury beach stretching the length of the Venice Lido. Inside, we’re sat in a massive suite in the Excelsior Hotel. The study alone is bigger than most hotel rooms, topped off with a large desk against a window that looks out onto the glistening Adriatic. It’s in here he arrives to talk to us, freely admitting the contradictions that come with a western lifestyle and a call for global action as he discusses the film.

After years working with images of nature, why this switch to people?

Because I am an ecologist. To be an ecologist is to love animals and nature, but it’s also about people. For the last 20 years I’ve been doing Earth from Above and things like that and I was fed up photographing the impact of man; ice melting and ecological disasters etc. Humans are the key and we are destroying the planet.

This movie is a question, not an answer. Why are we still fighting like animals, why are we at war, why is my country selling weapons around the world, why is homosexuality forbidden? That there can be a death penalty for homosexuality is amazing. Why are so many people so poor, why do we accept that? Why? I know it’s not easy, I know there’s no answer. It’s a movie about that.

There’s great complexity that comes through the personal stories in the film.

There’s great complexity in humanity. This movie carries a lot of hope. I was very moved by how the Germans welcomed the refugees last week. And the Austrians. I think this is the theme of my movie, to put your humanity above your fear, above your economic problems. Suddenly you decide you cannot leave these people like that. We have a number of crises; climate change, economic crisis, war. It’s not going to stop.

We have two choices, conflict or humanity, and we have to accept we have to share. I think we are too rich, we have too much. I want to be more with less. These people do not have enough. It is a movie about that. I’m not a good example for that but it’s the path I want to go on and this movie is about that.

I think to succeed in your professional life and to be a good photographer and filmmaker, a good journalist. It’s not difficult. Human life is difficult. To become older; to think about your death and accept you’re going to die. To accept what you have done well and what you have done bad. Everything is part of being human. You decide how you want to live and how you want to be happy. We have the choice because we are rich, and we can do what we want. These people have no choice.

You say you’re concerned about the way the world is going, but are you still optimistic about the future?

I think it’s too late to be pessimistic. Pessimism brings passivity and inaction. I try to think today what is my mission? I see the world how it is. I don’t want to live in denial, I don’t want to lie. I know we live in a difficult world. In fact we are all living in denial. Despite climate change we are still using energy like we don’t care, we still waste food. I am part of this world; I am living in this world, so I have to accept it.

Stirring up emotions seems to be a key aim. Is there a target audience?

I want it to reach the maximum number of people. Like all directors we like making movies for everyone. It’s an activist movie, it’s like a movement. To make this movie we went to the Betancourt family who paid for it completely. That changes everything. You can give the rights to anyone you want. In France for example 500 cinemas are screening the movie. 500 cinemas for a documentary in France is big. And also in small cities with no cinema, I can send things to make the screening. So I want to reach the maximum, for my ego, and because I think the movie is useful.

You’re presenting the film at the UN as well. Can this have a direct impact or is it just for publicity?

There is publicity but it’s fantastic to think these people without voice can talk in the middle of the UN assembly. The United Nations is us. It’s not politicians. And we are not enough inside the UN. I think the people from Gaza inside is not enough; I think the number of homosexuals inside is not enough. The poor people are not enough in the Security Council. I think the UN is the place to show the movie to help change this.

A large number of interviews were conducted. Is there a story that stayed with you?

Oh so many. The Indian girl taking the food from the rat hole. Or the soldier explaining that he liked to kill. There were so many.

It’s interesting that there are stories about violence from the view of both victims and perpetrators.

Violence is all around us. Why hide it? I hope this violence helps us to become more human, helps us not to contribute to the problem. This is how you build the movie. You try to make a piece for cinema. In the beginning the movie was 12 hours. I kept saying I will not have a 12 hour movie. We speak about humanity but humanity is so difficult. Even 12 hours is not enough.

How did you cut it down from 12 hours?

If you want to make a movie for the cinema you have to accept it can’t be really long. It’s still over three hours. But I’m not so much afraid of the length. I’m very, very, very happy with the feeling of the movie. I feel people understand what we are doing. Everything is not perfect but people understand the aims of the movie. I am very happy about that.

Why did you choose to interview only people on the margins of society?

We didn’t. We did an interview with Ban Ki-moon [current UN Secretary-General] but it’s not in the movie. Bill Gates for example, we interviewed him. I was waiting two years but it was impossible for him to say something personal. It was all technical so it’s not in the movie. Ban Ki-moon did something like that. When you are a politician or a very famous person, you cannot speak about your fears. I have a lot of respect for them; these people are like my heroes. I know Ban Ki-moon and he’s very involved in climate change.

It’s not for politicians to change the world though. It’s for me to do it and for you. People are a bit like sheep and like to follow but you can decide to follow your own actions. To be human and to follow your own morals is not easy but it’s the heart of the movie.

Having made your career filming from the sky, how different is the world when you are focussed on a person?

I’m an activist. Humanity is at a turning point and I want to be part of humanity through my work. In my time you need to look at humanity and how to be more human, that’s all.

Also, I love these beautiful faces. To be a photographer and to work with this aesthetic is part of my life. I don’t like to do ugly; I don’t know how to do ugly. I want to work with beautiful things. I’m so lucky to work on this and I think also this film makes me better. I learned a lot of things.

It’s easy to be a good professional director but it’s not easy to be a good man. That’s something else.

So you saw things you didn’t see before?

A man doesn’t change. He becomes older. And you learn a lot of things, you see your life and you see your children in a different way. That’s all. So I think looking from the air or looking at the people, it’s still the same. I’m looking at the planet trying to understand why, where we go, trying to explain the ecological problem, trying to explain the humanity problem, that’s all. You have to see it very simply.

I don’t work for advertising, I don’t work for entertainment. I’m a heavy person. I hate to do something light. That’s all. I’m a filmmaker trying to do my job. Everything is far from perfect but I’m trying.