The Hat with French director Yann Arthus-Bertrand (photo by Amie Oliver)
Director Yann Arthus-Bertrand begins our interview by re-arranging the chairs to afford better illumination for my photographer, Amie Oliver. His expertise in the qualities of light is derived from working in film for more than 40 years and during that time creating vast, big-breadth movies about the earth, what is upon it, underneath and above.
Our conversation, cast in gold by late afternoon sun through The Byrd Theatre’s mezzanine windows and beneath its chandeliers, concerned his latest work, "Human." He accompanied the film, which screened this past weekend at the 24th French Film Festival.
The recent and careless use of the term “epic” almost robs the word of its power, but the description is justified by the three-hour-and-18-minute film edited together from three years of travel and interviews with more than 2,000 people from 60 countries. They appear on the screen confronting us right in the eyes. Sometimes they cry. Sometimes they try not to. They are angry. They are in love. They laugh. They contemplate what happiness means, and the three hours evaporate.
Arthus-Bertrand, as he says, “one man among 7 billion people,” uses his cameras to explore the oceans, fly above forests, roam among the creatures of the earth and chronicle the planet's climatological systems. And in so doing, Arthus-Bertrand recognizes that there are persistent and intractable challenges confronting the species.
Here, with a narrator providing his voice, he explains how “Human” came to be:
Arthus-Bertrand arranges the images and stories in a symphonic manner with speaking movements and visual passages. His work is a tapestry woven from stories of violence and cruelty, of love and compassion, of poverty in spirit and destitution of circumstance. He depicts the human spirit and astounding vistas of the natural and manmade world. He soars above masses of people, then brings into crystal focus individuals. Beyond the Western world, in that tier of nations called the “Third World” or “developing countries,” exists such impoverishment and daily danger to beggar the imagination of most theatergoers unless they’ve been to these places.
Many of the people who come under the unblinking gaze of Arthus-Bertrand’s camera aren’t the kind who often get any attention. We become accustomed to images of non-Western people either experiencing wars and revolutions or caught up in disasters that cause us to think, if briefly, "Those poor people. There but for the grace of God go I." And we go on. Arthus-Bertrand stops to listen – often alighting from a helicopter.
The Hat: You began going aloft in Kenya in hot air balloons.
Arthus-Bertrand: I was studying lions in Kenya for a thesis. To make a living, I flew hot air balloons. When you work like what I was working, you see the same lion family from above. I discovered from above a very different vision. In fact, I stopped my studies and became a photographer. When I was making "The Earth From Above" – the French TV asked me to do a 20-part series — I discovered non-government organizations (NGOs) that are in these countries working on solutions. And I became an activist. Then "An Inconvenient Truth" by Al Gore came out, whom I’ve gotten to know. So this is the first time people are now talking about climate change. And I watched not just this movie, but how people experienced it: in one dark room, facing the screen. And that made me think about the experience of cinema.
The Hat: One of the first scenes in "Human" struck me as metaphorical: a narrow line of – perhaps, pilgrims? – along a ridge where it seems a misstep would send them tumbling. What’s the story behind that?
Arthus-Bertrand: This is a caravan of animals carrying things from Pakistan to China. You know, we discover them with a helicopter and we have to land to explain what we’re doing. No, it is not a metaphor, but people have seen it that way: people walking on the edge, between the light and the dark. And then afterward the guy in jail, and after that a bird, so people say this must mean “freedom" because of a bird — not at all, it was just a beautiful image.
The Hat: How did you find the many interview subjects?
Arthus-Bertrand: Not so difficult by working with NGOs and journalists and people helping us with the project. If you want to speak to people of poverty and being of the untouchables, you go to India. Farmers in Madagascar. Veterans groups about wars. If you want to go talk about money, go speak to traders in New York. You see it is not so hard – if you don’t stay at home. You must go to them wherever they are.
The Hat: What was your budget and how many are in your crew?
Arthus-Bertrand: This film, $12 million and a crew of 20. And all the money goes into the movie. There’s nothing for promotion. I have a very simple method: If I run out of money, I stop making the movie. I have just done a new one, Terra, with Omega as my sponsor.
But you see, I want "Human" to be seen by as many people who can, and free, and so we’re trying to find a distributor because if you offer it free, then, you see, it has no value.
The Hat: Your next film is "Woman"? Where is that in its progress?
Arthus-Bertrand: We have some money. I’m going later in the summer for a screening of "Human" for the Gates Foundation, and we’ll talk to them.
The Hat: The technology has changed during the course of your filmmaking. You started in hot air balloons. Are you using drones?
Arthus-Bertrand: For the kind of filming we do, drones aren’t enough. These aren’t action movies. Perhaps drones in time will become good for what we do.
The Hat: You take on these tremendous subjects.
Arthus-Bertrand: The biggest you can find, yes (laughs). Perhaps I am too ambitious. I did “Paris From Above” and I met (National Geographic) photographer Frans Lanting through this and said, "Let’s do a story about the planet." You see, you cannot just show a small place. It’s always a big story.
And so, we are all implicated and we are all in huge denial about that. Our chicken may come from Thailand, your glasses from Shanghai, your clothes from China. We accept this condition. The former president of Uruguay (José Mujica), who is in the movie — very simple guy, a very intelligent man. It was an honor to get to know him. He drove around in that little blue Volkswagen. He says, "We are urged to consume because this is the only way things work."
I’m very involved in the fact that we live in denial completely. We don’t want to believe what we know. Everybody knows the future will be difficult. We still continue as we did before. We consume and consume. Selling weapons — my country, your country. I am amazed about how we are idiots and yet we are clever. We are very clever about working together when we need to. But this sort of cleverness is going to destroy us. There is no solution to wanting more, more. This process is suicide.
I went tp a TED talk about one month ago. Someone speaks on the dinosaur. Everybody applauds but nobody stops to think what this means, you know? This Sixth Extinction.
I see love as part of the solution. And woman as part of the solution.
The Hat: I’m wondering: You make these mammoth movies about immense subjects, which must get frustrating. Do you ever say, "I’m just going to make a romantic comedy about two mixed-up ethno-biologists"?
Arthus-Bertrand: (Laughs) No, no, this doesn’t interest me. I was a wildlife photographer. I’m still doing the same thing. I’m good at doing what I’m doing. I’d be no good directing actors. I’m so lucky to make this kind of movie. I have an amazing team, very nice people I get to work with. No, no, I don’t want to do entertainment movies. Not interested at all.
The Hat: How many times have you been around the world?
Arthus-Bertrand: The last 40 years, I’m traveling 10 days out of every month. But I don’t put a pin in a map in my room: I’ve been there, I’ve been there. You know, we are all beautiful people, I think so. This movie is about love and beauty.