What is the meaning of life? 'Human' documentary digs for an answer

Featuring interviews with more than 2,000 people in 60 countries, 'Human' premiered at the UN Saturday and was released on YouTube. 

Andrew Medichini/AP/File
Director Yann Arthus-Bertrand poses for portraits at the 72nd Venice Film Festival, Sept. 9, 2015.

What unites us as human beings?

French photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand filmed interviews with more than 2,000 people in 60 countries to answer that ambitious question for his latest project, "Human."

"For the past 40 years, I have been photographing our planet and its human diversity, and I have the feeling that humanity is not making any progress," Mr. Arthus-Bertrand writes on the documentary's website. "We can’t always manage to live together. Why is that?"

For more than two years, his crew of about 20 journalists, camera operators, local fixers, producers, and translators traveled the world, seeking answers.

Interspersed with stunning panoramic scenery, the interviews take place in front of a nondescript black background. Without any disclosure of location or identity, each subject answers the same 40 questions, including: What is the toughest trial you have had to face, and what did you learn from it? Why are our differences so great? What is your message for the inhabitants of the planet? When is the last time you said "I love you" to your parents? And so on.

The result isn’t quite an answer to humanity's deepest questions, but it is a riveting portrait of life, love, anger, and desire, as told by real-life characters ranging from a laborer in Bangladesh to a death-row inmate in the United States to the former president of Uruguay.

The documentary premiered at the United Nations General Assembly on Saturday, the first film to do so.

It also played at the Venice Film Festival and opened in 500 French theaters, but it has yet to reach US movie theaters. The GoodPlanet Foundation, Arthus-Bertrand’s nonprofit, will provide free copies of the film for schools and NGOs around the world.

To ensure his opus would reach the widest global audience possible, Arthus-Bertrand released a web-adapted version of the project on YouTube, split into three volumes. Each segment lasts about 90 minutes, with subtitles available in Arabic, English, French, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

"Above all, Human is a political film, so there were some precise themes I wished to explore through these conversations," said Arthus-Bertrand, a goodwill ambassador for the UN Environmental Programme, in an interview with the Huffington Post. His questions invoked opinions on homophobia – an uncomfortable subject for many, especially in countries where it’s illegal – and war, which he calls "incomprehensible."

The interviews often spiraled off in unpredictable tangents, he said.

"I would interview someone for a reason, and they would tell us about something else entirely," Arthus-Bertrand explained to Wired.

Humans are unpredictable, after all. A chance encounter in Mali led to this project: His helicopter had broken down in a rural village, and he ended up talking to a local farmer about his hopes, concerns, and priorities.

With the proliferation of technology and social media, human empathy has become easy to share. For instance, when amateur photographer Brandon Stanton took portraits around New York City and posted them online with accompanying stories and quotes, he began to gain a following on Facebook, eventually leading to the creation of his viral photoblog, Humans of New York.

Humans, it turns out, cannot resist other humans.

"I think the film speaks to that, the difficulties we each encounter in relation to our own lives, in maintaining valuable connections with our families and those around us and coming to terms with our personal ethics," Arthus-Bertrand says. "The older I get, the more I understand how difficult those objectives are to achieve. But the answer is always love. Love is the answer."

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