- Associated Press - Thursday, September 10, 2015

VENICE, Italy (AP) - With wars, atrocities and the desperation of refugees dominating the daily news, it’s easy to feel despair about human nature.

French filmmaker Yann Arthus-Bertrand hopes to restore movie-watchers’ faith - or at least awaken their compassion - with “Human,” a documentary that compiles the extraordinary stories of ordinary people from around the world.

Arthus-Bertrand, the aerial photographer behind best-selling coffee-table book “Earth From Above,” interviewed hundreds of people from more than 60 countries, including Rwandan genocide survivors, American army veterans, Syrian refugees, Afghan farmers and the president of Uruguay. Victims and perpetrators tell stories of killing and vengeance, while other subjects speak of love, forgiveness and pride.

The subjects are presented in close-up and without context - we never even learn their names. The aim is to make viewers look these disparate strangers in the eye and listen to their words.

“I think the only way to make people think is through emotions. Not through the brain - through the heart,” the director said during an interview at the Venice Film Festival, where “Human” plays for the public on Saturday.

The documentary - endorsed by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon - screens inside the U.N. General Assembly hall in New York the same day.

The onscreen interviews are interspersed with aerial shots of cities and deserts, oceans, forests and crowds, whose almost abstract beauty gives viewers a chance to pause and digest what they have heard.

Arthus-Bertrand shot more than 2,500 hours of footage over two years, speaking to more than 2,000 people. He says the interviews reinforced his view that “everybody has something to say. Everybody.”

The first cut of the movie was 12 hours long. With some regret, the director has trimmed it to just over three hours.

“There were so many strong stories we cut,” he said. “(But) people have to go to the toilet, people have to go to eat.”

“Human” is a passion project for the 69-year-old director, who says he has found that with age “you like to go to essential things, to go to what is important.”

The film wants viewers to reflect on fundamental questions: Why is there war and hatred? Why do some have too much and some too little? Why is humanity despoiling the Earth?

“I know it is not going to change with a movie,” Arthus-Bertrand said. “But I am doing my job.”

Funded by French charity the Bettencourt-Schueller Foundation, “Human” will have a wide cinema release and TV broadcast later this month in France, and will be distributed free to charities, community groups and local authorities willing to arrange screenings.

It’s backed by the global heft of Google - which will devote a Google Doodle and a mini-site to it on Saturday - and accompanied by an array of online clips, resources and background information.

Arthus-Betrand says he hopes viewers will emerge from “Human” thinking, “I like people more at the end of the film than I did before.”

He says he knows it might sound “naive and utopian,” but he remains an optimist about the human condition.

“I was so pleased when I saw these refugees coming (into) Germany and this guy with a sign: ‘Welcome,’” he said. “I was crying, in fact. This is when you put your humanity before your fear.”

Follow Jill Lawless on Twitter at https://Twitter.com/JillLawless

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