Well known for his stunning areal photography and movies about humanity and the environment, French photographer, filmmaker, journalist and environmentalist Yann Arthus-Betrand came to Manila to open the CMS COP 12 (a conference on the conservation of migratory species of wild animals), taking place from October 23 – 28.
On October 21, the Alliance Française de Manille showed a special screening of his widely popular movie HUMAN, which is also available for free streaming on Youtube. I met the distinguished director and UN goodwill ambassador for an interview to chat about his work, activism and interest in women’s rights for his upcoming film WOMAN.
Yann Arthus-Bertrand areal photography in the Philippines
Is this your first visit to the Philippines?
This is my third visit. I came the first time 20 years ago to film parts of Mindanao, then again three years ago for a documentary about our oceans. I did not film the Philippines for HUMAN so I am happy to come here again for my next project WOMAN.
How would you describe your movies HOME and HUMAN?
HOME is an easy-going movie about ecology, about the state of the planet.
HUMAN is something else. The movie has no commentary, only the interviews of people answering questions about different life topics. You do your own commentary. You just have to open your heart and listen to the people. HUMAN is a project I really love and today I find it very difficult to do something else. When you begin to do art like that, it is very difficult to do something else. HUMAN is bigger than me, it is above me. I am only the bridge between you, the viewer, and the people who are being interviewed. I think by listening to the people telling their stories you become a better person. I’m very proud of HUMAN, it’s the best film I’ve ever made. And it has an incredibly high rating of 8.7 on IMDB, which only very few movies achieve.
When you filmed HUMAN, did you do some of the interviews yourself?
Yes, I interviewed many myself, among them Ban-Ki Moon, Bill Gates and the Uruguayan president José Mujica. What the Uruguayan president said in his interview is what I also believe: our lives revolve around working to buy material things. We have to change this! We have to work for and enjoy ourselves and we have to make our lives useful. If your life is not useful, it’s ridiculous!
Cameron Diaz was one of the people you interviewed for HUMAN. How did you meet her?
I met her at a TED Talk in Vancouver and asked her to be part of the movie. I am fortunate to be connected to the people at TED and also Google. In December I will have a meeting with Sheryl Sandberg to show her HUMAN.
What will your next film WOMAN be about?
It will be a movie about what it means to be a woman in the world today. And I know it is not easy to be a woman amongst today’s men, to find your way, to be respected. I don’t just want to show the injustice women experience but also their strength. For example, you can be very poor but still succeed. Here in the Philippines you have many examples of women like that. Also, there are many things women never used to talk about. But today women finally speak up. Just like in the Harvey Weinstein story in the USA. Now is the time for women to stand up for themselves!
What do you think about the Harvey Weinstein scandal?
I didn’t know he was like that (the sexual predator he was ousted to be). But I met him before at a Google event and tried to approach him about my movie HUMAN. He said right away that he was not interested. He is a very unfriendly, rough person. He isn’t very likeable, he is not a humanist. I don’t like the commercial movie industry, it is just about money. It’s very cynical.
I was told that after finishing your next film you may do a movie about Filipino women only. Is that true?
To film my next movie WOMAN, I am going to send film teams to 40 countries, one of them being the Philippines, to interview local women for three weeks. We might extend the interviews during those three weeks if we decide to do a special movie on Filipino women. But that depends on whether someone here can come up with the budget for the project. Before tonight’s film screening I had a meeting with 15 local NGOs. They explained the problems of Filipino women and I was very interested in the issues of divorce, abortion and so on. At the same time the NGOs talked about the strength of Fillipino women. I found that contrast very interesting.
Your movies HUMAN and also HOME are available for free streaming on Youtube. Why did you choose to offer them for free?
I always try to avoid the commercial way and instead find sponsors if possible. When you are an activist like me, your priority is not to make money. Apart from that it is nice to have artistic freedom. If I had a distributor for WOMAN then I’d have to take out discussions about homophobia for example. HUMAN is banned in Arab countries because of that already. With WOMAN I want to expose the injustice women face, I want to show reality. I cannot do that with the restrictions given by a distributor. It is also nice to distribute the movie freely. HOME is about the environment and it can be given to anyone for free, including educational institutions, schools, etc.
Director Yann Arthus-Bertrand at a special screening of his movie HUMAN in Manila
Amongst others, you are an environmental activist. What is your view on the state of the planet today?
All the numbers about biodiversity and ecology are bad. Last year was the hottest year in the world. Climate change causes fires, floods. We have climate refugees fleeing from the heat in their countries. We humans live in denial. Nobody wants to believe what is happening due to climate change, population growth, etc. but we know what is going to happen, everybody knows: science tells us that we will face the 6th extinction of life on the planet. This is not a light issue, we have to change our way of life and we have to compromise our comfort! It is, for example, impossible for the entire world to live like France or the six richest countries in the world. Capitalism is destroying the world! We have too much, we have to share! But I think it is too late to be pessimistic. I don’t want to be cynical and skeptical about everything, I want to believe that we can change.
How can everybody do something individually at home to improve the world?
We have the politicians to take care of issues. But don’t think politicians are going to change the world. You are going to change the world yourself! Something simple everybody in wealthy countries can do: stop eating meat. I think that’s the best thing you can do because the highest emission of CO2 comes from raising animals for meat consumption.
How do you define happiness?
Advocating something will make you happy! Advocating to change the world will make you happy! You just have to try! It may be difficult sometimes and you may not always be successful, people may not understand you but don’t give up! Because standing for something makes us human. It’s part of humanity to change the world. The young boy at the end of my film HUMAN said “I’m sure God has a mission for me in life”. It’s not ridiculous to think that everybody has a mission! Life doesn’t have any meaning; you decide to give your life meaning!
What would you say is your mission in life?
I am trying to change the world! Some people are doing politics to change the world, some become priests. I’m making movies! I’m trying to be honest, which is very important. And I want to make the world a better place!
Watch HUMAN for free on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/user/HUMANthemovie2015