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Film Review: ‘Human’

Marvelous images and heartfelt human testimonies pall over the course of Yann Arthus-Bertrand's arduous three-hour doc.

With touchscreen coffee tables still an unattainable luxury in most households, “Human” may have arrived a few years too early for its optimum avenue of exhibition. The latest ethically conscious film project from star French photojournalist Yann Arthus-Bertrand, this diverse collage of earnest human testimony and dazzling aerial imagery is more socially engaged than his previous, more environmentally focused work — with a vast panel of human subjects, ranging from Afghan refugees to American death-row inmates, sharing their stories on camera. After more than three hours of uniformly presented short-form interviews, however, these stories retain little individual power or resonance, while the pic’s sporadic interludes of lush landscape lensing risk aestheticizing the personal struggles in question. With the final effect akin to that of a gargantuan public service announcement, “Human” might breathe more easily in small doses. 

That, at least, is something this multimedia-minded project appears to accept: Three 90-minute edits of the film have already been made available on YouTube, though the unvarying structure of the whole can surely be broken down into any number of shorter formats. (This simultaneous cross-platform strategy follows the route taken by Arthus-Bertrand’s more digestible 2009 opus “Home.”) Beyond France — where the film was released on Sept. 12, days after its Venice fest premiere — it’s therefore difficult to envision significant theatrical distribution for Arthus-Bertrand’s 188-minute master version.

Perhaps with the easily distracted online audience in mind, the helmer and and his editors, Francoise Bernard and Anne-Marie Sangla, have fashioned “Human” in such a way that viewers can tune in and tune out at any point. Though the pic’s talking heads are loosely grouped by social issue, there’s little cumulative thematic development between them. So it is that a section on LGBT discrimination in developed and developing territories alike sits alongside one on the hardships endured by migrant workers, while statements on psychological well-being merge into political rhetoric on the global poverty crisis.

The clue’s in the title, of course. Arthus-Bertrand’s aim is to encompass the broadest possible spectrum of experience, unifying his disparate interviewees — most of whom speak in their native tongue — by tacit acknowledgment of their shared humanity. (Over 2,000 people were interviewed over two years, presumably yielding a wealth of unused footage for further permutations of the project.) The camera underlines this pretty fundamental “we are the world” thesis, shooting every participant’s contribution in identically framed, dun-backgrounded closeup: As a simple panoply of faces, spanning multiple nationalities, races and generations, the film would make its point even without sound.

Many of the testimonies are compelling on a case-by-case basis, whether articulating searing tales of personal suffering or gentler reflections on the daily challenges of living. A Palestinian man’s expression of grief for a young daughter killed in the Arab-Israeli conflict is, needless to say, very moving; so, in a different register, is a middle-class Irishwoman’s take on the bittersweet rewards of growing old without a biological family. Yet the interviews are so brief, densely sandwiched with further flashes of pain and catharsis, that viewers may well find themselves reaching a kind of unwitting emotional capacity. Arthus-Bertrand’s intention may be to collate their stories as a talking human tapestry, but larger tragedy inevitably gets condensed and submerged in the process. A closing chapter, in which people are invited to define the meaning of life, aims to close things on a brighter note: Some of the responses are amusingly idiosyncratic, though others lend the film a handily platitudinous conclusion.

The sheer indivisible weight of experience here means that the pic’s photographic interludes — several of which, contrary to the title, are fixated on natural wonders rather than human ones — perhaps come as more of a relief than they should do. They’re spectacular all the same, giving viewers the sensation of leafing through several animated volumes of National Geographic at once: Whether passing over verdant rice paddies, swirling ocean waters or the heaving human waves at a European soccer stadium, Bruno Cusa’s aerial lensing works in the color-rich, long-view style that Arthus-Bertrand has made his creative signature. Unlike much else in “Human,” such images will hardly transfer as well to YouTube.

Film Review: 'Human'

Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (noncompeting), Sept. 9, 2015. Running time: 188 MIN.

Production: (Documentary — France) A Bettencourt Schueller Foundation presentation of a HumanKind Production. (International sales: Goodplanet Foundation, Paris.) Produced by Florent Gilard. Executive producer, Jean-Yves Robin.

Crew: Directed by Yann Arthus Bertrand. Camera (color, widescreen), Bruno Cusa, Daniel Meyer, Stephane Azouze; editors, Francoise Bernard, Anne-Marie Sangla; music, Armand Amar; sound, Daniel Sobrino; line producer, Yazid Tizi; assistant directors, Herve Kern, Anastasia Mikova, Mia Sfeir, Erik Van Laere.

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