What makes you HUMAN?

“I remember… my stepfather would beat me with extension cords and hangers, pieces of wood and all kinds of stuff. He would tell me: ‘It hurt me more than you. I only did it, because I love you.’ It communicated the wrong message to me about what love was. So, for many years, I thought that love was supposed to hurt. I hurt everyone that I loved. And I measured love by how much pain someone would take from me. And it wasn’t until I came to prison, an environment that is devoid of love, that I began to have some understanding about what it actually was and was not. I met someone. She gave me my first real insight into what love was. She saw past my condition and the fact that I was in prison with a life sentence for doing the worst kind of murder that a man can do: murdering a woman and a child. It was Agnes, the mother and grandmother of… Patricia and Chris, that I murdered, who gave me my best lesson about love. By all rights, she should hate me. But she didn’t. Over the course of time, through the journey that we took, it has been pretty amazing, she gave me love. She taught me what it was.” [*1]

– Leonard, USA, from the documentary Human [*2]

The documentary Human (2015) begins with words of great love and great suffering. The filmmaker and artist Yann Arthus-Bertrand collected real-life stories from 2,000 women and men in 60 countries over three years. The weight of their tales about life, love, and suffering will make you speechless. The interviewees teach you to look into eyes that tell stories and listen. What follows are some of my impressions of the first of three volumes of this deeply moving series.

A human face appears in front of a black background. Facial muscles are relaxed. Eyes fixated on the viewer. Mouth closed. One face after another appears with the flow of the melody. Different faces. Different forms. Different colors of eyes, skin and hair. They all look alike, like human beings. The face of a young girl dissolves into a desert. Nothingness.

Some of the faces seem to emerge from the background, making boundaries blur between the black color of the background and their contours. As soon as I start thinking about the artistic composition, I am left with the question: Do we come from nothing and are we going back to nothing? These beautiful, breathing beings emerge(d) from nothing. From no-thing. At the same time, the black background reminds me of a void that can be filled with any personal definition of why and how we want to live. So now we find ourselves in this world, in this universe for a period of time, until the desert appears, closing off the lines of faces. Again, nothingness?

“El Amor?” He laughs. “Love is the beginning and the end. Love is where we come from, where we’re going and what we live between the two. Love is everything,” answers the second interviewee.

Through his insight, I realize that we can decide if and how to give meaning to our existence. We can decide between nothingness as no-thing and nothingness as a void  that we fill with meaning. Every human being can fill their lives with meaning, and Daniel from Mexico decided to fill it with love. People from all over the world continue answering what love means to them. The answers are as colorful and diverse as the faces, names, and nations. It becomes irrelevant where people come from. To emphasize this, the movie shows a different person while playing back a recorded answer before introducing us to the actual interviewee on screen. The experiences could have been lived and told by someone else and are not bound to contours of faces and lands. The movie does not display the individual’s name and nation, but it’s an option that the viewer can choose by turning on the closed captions on the YouTube version.

It struck me that when you give people a word or an idea and ask them what it means, they don’t cite Plato or Aristotle or try to come up with an abstract definition as if this would be closer to an “objective truth.” Rather, they tell their personal story. You will hear stories of how a woman gave love to the murderer of her daughter and grandson. You will look into the scarred, twisted face of a Japanese man who speaks about how he and his fiancée tried to kill themselves because his fiancée’s parents were opposed to their marriage after he was irradiated by the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. And an old man from South Africa will tell you how he took care of his severely ill wife. He bathed, fed and dressed her, and pushed her around in a wheelchair for two years. He says how he loved being there for her. Suddenly, it is as if the faces dissolve and you are staring directly at life itself.

When receiving a prompt about “love,” an individual can only give an account of what they think about love by relating to others. It made me realize that we would not even be without others and that we are linked through a great human network. We are in need of the care and love of others to safely grow up and build a life. This could be one of the reasons why the documentary starts with the idea of love: without love, we would not even be capable of talking, thinking, walking, living – and loving.


A woman appears, contemplating. “No, I never thought about it,” she says. “I wouldn’t have liked to be a man. Because men have an easy life. Too easy. And easy lives are boring … For women everything is more difficult … But there is also the appeal of attaining your goals despite the difficulties. Without question, I prefer being a woman.”

The movie gives valuable insights into personal stories that make you think about your own lived experiences, but also about broader human conditions. Have you ever thought about which implications being (considered) a woman or a man has? Who fills the terms “womanhood” and “manhood” with images, duties, and constraints? To effectively and critically address commercial strategies that foster certain gender roles (like blue-colored cool-car-and-expeditions magazines for young boys vs. pink how-can-I-make-my-crush-like-me magazines for young girls) and serious systematic discrimination against women, we need to think how societal structures have affected and are affecting one’s most intimate thoughts about being a woman or a man.

One interviewee in the movie spoke about her gender reassignment. She lived as a boy/man for 22 years and then decided to become a woman. Her experience made me think about people who cannot and do not want to assign themselves to one gender:   the “female-male distinction” is too narrow since many cannot identify with the binary gender model. The interviewees answers reminded me that we can always question our identity and (re)invent vocabulary to understand, create and express ourselves.

The movie shows an interplay of faces, nature and music (Credit: film still from the documentary “Human” [2015] http://designcollector.net/likes/human-a-film-by-yann-arthus-bertrand)

Though I felt initially that it was irrelevant where the participants came from, the second half of the first volume proved me painfully wrong.

A Bangladeshi worker looks into the camera. He works in the garment industry and shares how outraged he is when a buyer comes to meet the company owner or marketing team to negotiate the price. He questions why they don’t pay a fair price for quality garments and blames the customer for stealing by not paying an appropriate price. In the end he asks: “How will we be happy? How?” He didn’t ask: “How can I pay my rent, or how will I feed myself or my family, or how will I pay for hospitalization?” He asked, how will we be happy? How will we be happy? There is a wisdom in his words that I cannot fully access because they can be interpreted in so many different ways. Poverty makes me think primarily of physical deprivation, but his question is concerned with an emotional state. And even though he is suffering, he says ‘we,’ which could mean his coworkers or all human beings.

His shared experiences led me to reflect on poverty more generally. It made me realize that when we encounter poor people, even on the street, an “us-them” perception and with it a power relationship emerges. They are poor. I am not. I can give to them, but I don’t have to. When we are content with buying a cheap shirt from a store that underpays its workers, we must honestly ask ourselves at what price we profit from this arrangement. It is not only about doing injustice to others that live in miserable and poor conditions. It is also about us doing injustice to ourselves by hurting them. We violate our own dignity when we do not respect the dignity of others. How will we be happy then?

“I am poor. I will define poverty now. What poverty means to me. It’s when I have to go to school, but I can’t go. When I have to eat, but I can’t. When I have to sleep, but I can’t. When my wife and children suffer. I don’t have a sufficient intellectual level to get us out of this situation, me or my family. I really feel poor. Physically poor, mentally poor. And you rich people who listen to me, what do you have to say about your wealth?”

Atman from Haiti gives the most tragic and most powerful definition I have ever heard of poverty. To be honest, it makes me question ashamedly how much I have and how little I appreciate and give. It is very easy to forget and overlook what one has, to complain and focus only on the negative. Even though I am extremely lucky to live in a country that grants me so many benefits in areas of health, education and work, it’s simply not fair that what I have depends on where I live. I can try and change my individual attitude, I can thank more, I can give more, I can support fair trade, but the systematic international exploitation and destruction of nations and people won’t change through individual decisions alone. However, we must question our individual decisions that support unjust economic structures. We also want to be paid fairly. For us to feel lucky after buying a cheap shirt, a hard-working person has to desperately suffer. So in a world like this, could we be happy?

To really listen and feel what the human beings (of the film) are feeling creates an empathy with which the documentary directly engages. Thought experiment: Let the rich be poor and the poor be rich for some days. Let greedy politicians switch with their population and suffer from the laws they have enacted. Let them search for rice in rat holes, like Lalmati from India, who then says, “God is kind-hearted” because He allows her to find some grains of rice off of which to live. At least let them hear her words. Let the world hear their words.

I can’t propose a perfect solution that practically deals with the mess that human desires create in this world. But, I want to propose something easy and effective to begin to think of how to aid our world: empathy. I think that individual empathy, especially by influential leaders and decision-makers, could lead to the necessary structural changes because personal (especially monetary) interests wouldn’t be the main motivation to enforce or block (inter)national laws. An example of a critical leader is the former president of Uruguay, José Mujica, as one of the interviewees, who says:

“The way we live and our values are the expression of the society we live in. And we cling to that. It doesn’t matter if I’m the president. I’ve thought about all this a lot. I spent over 10 years in a solitary confinement cell. I had the time… I spent 7 years without opening a book. It left me time to think. This is what I discovered. Either you’re happy with very little, without overburdening yourself, because you have happiness inside, or you’ll get nowhere. I am not advocating poverty. I am advocating sobriety. But we invented a consumer society… which is continually seeking growth. When there’s no growth, it’s tragic. We invented a mountain of superfluous needs. You have to keep buying, throwing away… It’s our lives we are squandering. When I buy something, or when you buy it, we’re not paying with money. We’re paying with the time from our lives we had to spend to earn that money. The difference is that you can’t buy life. Life just goes by. And it’s terrible to waste your life losing your freedom.”      

His answer mirrors this critical view about consumer-driven political decisions right back to me, to us. How much of the political systems and perverted economic strategies are already deeply ingrained in us without us even realizing? To see clearly, understand oneself and at the same time to step outside of oneself to feel for others is what the movie challenges its viewers to do. To change and grow.

“What would I like to ask? What the hell I’m doing here. Why can’t I be where you are to see what the hell is going on? Let’s switch for a minute. Let’s switch! You come here and be me and I’ll go there and be you. We’ll meet in the middle line on the Equator and we’ll play golf.”

End of the movie.


[*1] https://www.springfieldspringfield.co.uk/movie_script.php?movie=human

[*2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vdb4XGVTHkE

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