by Casey Black
When I hear the words “human rights,” I automatically think of something fundamental, something universal, something all humans innately deserve. However, the world we all currently inhabit doesn’t always operate the way we all think it should. Sometimes, human rights are restricted, questioned, and fleeting. In times such as these, it is necessary for all of us to be compassionate and listen.
Duquesne University has an annual film series known as the Human Rights Film series. This spring’s series was the 10th annual and had the theme “For the Sake of Humanity.” The Modern Language Department presents films close to every week and they always take place at 7pm in College Hall. For this specific theme, the films were all award winners that showcase critical abuses of human rights.
On February 23rd I attended the last film for this year’s series titled Human, which is a documentary directed by Yann Arthus-Bertrand .The film is actually 4 hours long and is available for free in its totality on youtube.com. Only about an hour and half was screened, but I don’t consider the impact of the film to be shortened in anyway. The film has no plot, no paid actors, just people (like you and me), talking and telling their stories to a single camera.
I was shocked, saddened, heart-broken, and filled with immense joy in the short hour and a half I spent watching this documentary. The director captures stories of all topics including what it means to love, to be happy, to forgive, to seek revenge, to hurt, and to be filled with purpose. The topics are heavy and force people to think about hard questions, but that is what gives us all the ability to think about what life means and what makes us all human.
One boy, a 15-year-old African American presents his story to the audience in a close up shot, the same way all of the other stories have been. He begins to ponder what the purpose of his life is in front of the camera and then shares with the audience that he is in prison. I notice his blue prison uniform and he says he has been sentenced to spend his life in confinement. My heart shatters, how can someone so young possibly stay in prison for the next 60-70 years? How can a person who has just lost something most of us take for granted, our freedom, ponder what his purpose will be? He says his purpose will be to help others, to council, to prevent people from making the same mistakes he did. He doesn’t share with me what his mistakes were, but I respect him regardless. His story shows me what it means to persevere, to be caring, and to remain hopeful despite dark times.
Another woman appears on screen and begins listing things that make her happy. She speaks of the rain, of enjoying good food, of seeing her grandkids smile, of love and blue skies. She is speaking a different language. I actually don’t even know what language she spoke, so I read the translated captions on the side of the screen. However, when she laughed, a hearty, happy, genuine laugh, the entire audience in College Hall laughed with her, because laughter is universal. The woman says “there are many things that are happiness, but at the same time there’s only one.” It’s interesting to think about how language often creates barriers and prevents people from being open to relating to one another. However, these “barriers” aren’t what is important; commonalities still exist and if we would only look for the things that makes us similar the world might be more peaceful.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is credited with coining the term ‘single story’, which she presents to us as a danger we should all avoid. It is dangerous to allow one story of something, one perception, or one experience to categorize an entire group of things just because they are all called by the same name. In Adichie’s more eloquent words, “the single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” In order to work against the danger the single story imposes we all need to be more open to different perspectives and more inclusive of stories different from our own. It’s important to recognize that all people have the right to speak and voice their opinions. Human spectacularly creates a platform for this interchange of voices and lends itself as a forum for judgement free exchanges.
While watching Human, I couldn’t help but consider how important the work is that this director is undertaking. Essentially, Bertrand was presenting us the opposite of a single story. He allows a multiplicity of people to share their own stories from places all over the world with the many people who hope to listen. Through this documentary people encounter a myriad of stories they otherwise would have been unaware of. People from all over the world joined together in this film to tell their experiences, in their own language, to a director who wanted to hear what they honestly had to say.
At the same time, Arthus-Bertrand is shaping a type of single story for readers, one of humanity and what it really means to be a human on this earth. He’s sharing his belief that our experiences, no matter how different and separate they are, make us all one thing – human. The film also includes long distance shots, mainly of nature. The shots last about 10 to 20 seconds and are breathtakingly beautiful. I couldn’t help but consider the idea that the director includes these shots to remind us all how small we are in comparison to the earth we share. These shots make you realize you are a part of something much bigger than yourself, you’re a member of the human race. A woman in the film said “You must love all people for what they are deep down. For only people can save the world”. I agree with the woman and the point she is trying to make. We’re all human, which means we all make mistakes and have flaws. Our unity serves to help us realize the existence of things bigger than these flaws and should push us all to help each other. As she says, only people can save the world and part of saving the world is saving each other, being more accepting, and lending a hand to those in need whenever possible.