By Nat Krieger
One hundred years ago movies were a new technology and folks were getting excited. Humans had been making images since there were humans but for the first time ever pictures could move, and laugh, and cry. The possibilities seemed so deliriously infinite that in 1908 Brazilian essayist João do Rio was moved to declare that, “in the future, the man of our era will be classified as the homo cinematographicus.”
Breakthrough technologies are never only children and the telephone, motion picture’s slightly older sister, was also inspiring some pretty high hopes. Writing in 1891, AT&T’s John J. Carty doffed his chief engineer’s cap and slipped into a prophet’s robe: “Someday we will build up a world telephone system, making necessary to all peoples the use of a common language or common understanding of languages, which will join all the people of the earth into one brotherhood. There will be heard throughout the earth a great voice coming out of the ether which will proclaim, ‘Peace on earth, good will towards men.'”
Never before had people been able to hear each other without being in the same place, and when the magic of disembodied voices was married to moving pictures, understanding and oneness among all the people of the earth would be a shoe in. Or not.
If the motion picture, first silent then talking, never quite found the courage to make that quantum leap maybe it was just afraid of the water below. 7 billion Others, on view at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park until September 13th, is a cinematic aqualung taking us on a swim through what Salman Rushdie once called the sea of stories.
It’s a cliché to say that what we humans have in common easily outweighs what separates us, but among other beneficial health effects this show puts the lie to theologies and ideologies that divide human beings by religion, race, or class. 7 billion Others does this by asking the widest possible variety of people from all over the globe—6,000 interviews in 84 countries and counting—a series of questions.
“What is happiness to you?” For a woman in Madagascar happiness is having water, what she calls “the basic element of all human activity.” Happiness for a man from Portugal is getting up in the morning and moving his toes. The answers to “what did you dream of being when you grew up” unveil a shared dream older than making pictures move: regardless of continent and gender nearly everyone wanted to be a pilot. And it was a pilot who dreamed up, or fell down into the project.
Yann Arthus-Bertrand was photographing the earth from above for a movie and book of that name when mechanical problems forced his helicopter to land in a Malian village. He spent two days talking to members of the extended family who comprised the settlement, learning about their lives. “Later, I dreamt of understanding their words, of feeling what linked us.” The views from above informed his blossoming ground level exploration, “because, from up there, the Earth looks like an immense area to be shared.”
The look of the film is straight forward. Most of the interviews are conducted in people’s homes and whether it’s a Tuareg nomad, an Indonesian farmer, or an Iranian combat veteran, everyone looks directly at the camera and answers a set of what one interviewer calls “heavy questions.”
“What does love represent and how do you show it?” It’s not a question but an arrow that flies into the heart of a person’s life experience, and the answers rarely leave a dry eye in those who speak or in the folks who watch and listen. Time, not locale, often plays the lead here. A Cuban woman reminds us that the answer can change over the years and if even one person lives long enough, she or he will likely hold, maybe in a palace of honor, maybe in half forgotten exile, other, younger people within.
For others the young passion never exits. A Japanese man who wed his beloved, maybe 60 maybe 80 winters ago, remembers how deeply they had fallen in love and how her parents’ opposition led the young couple to decide on suicide. “We took pills so we’d die in our sleep but as we weren’t professionals we had no idea what dose was necessary…We both woke up.” This already happier version of Romeo and Juliet ends with a turn right out of Chico Marx, “after all that, we got married.” I vote we visit the gentleman again, he definitely has more stories.
Entering the museum you’re greeted by a mosaic of faces blossoming across a wall 46 feet long. When the wall fills with faces they do almost become tesserae, but no, because you can still make out their individual expressions, and at some point you see they’re moving. One woman turns her head, a man in a turban breaks into a smile. At times a single face comes out of the crowd and talks. In the darkened hall beyond the mosaic glow screens inside six mini nickelodeons, each one devoted to answering a single question. The questions change every two months. For May and June the topics range from Dreams and Renouncements to A Better Life Than One’s Parents. There is also a working a photo booth, a device born of boardwalk summers and train station farewells.
Anytime anyone asks questions or take pictures they are framing the world and stage managing possibilities. The Making Of, a behind the scenes look at how the exhibition was made shows how some great interviews were built as well as other encounters where the prepared questions just don’t fly, usually because the person behind the camera, always a French twenty something, is asking someone they’ve just met a question that is either overly broad, or overly personal. Especially in rural, non-western cultures, people struggling to wrest a living from the land or the sea or down in a mine, are not given to the lengthy, verbalized self-analysis so beloved in the West. And while the French crews are respectful and interested in the local cultures, every so often a jarring need for control of the narrative peeps out.
An interviewer insists that the subject begin his answer by repeating the question in statement form, and in a scene that verges on the Pythonesque, the interviewer repeatedly stops the taping when his subject strays from the formula. The insistence of another interviewer that his eloquent, elusive subject answer an intimate question the man was politely avoiding comes across as an ugly if unconscious desire to recreate the paternalistic power dynamic of l’Empire Français.
Such scenes are salutary reminders of the diverse outlooks that glide over and through universal commonalities of sacrifice for the next generation, and curiosity about the wider world. At the end of an interview with a Roma woman living on the outskirts of Belgrade the power of the question is returned to her. What would she like to ask the people of the world? At first the woman smiles uncertainly and says she doesn’t know what to ask. After a long pause her reply comes out of the silence like a strong and ancient chant: “I’d ask them: what do you love most in life? I’d ask them: what is the most powerful thing? The strongest?” A shorter pause and a small sigh, “it’s an enigma.”
In celebrating The Birth of a Sixth Art more than a century ago Ricciotto Canudo wrote that “Present day Humanity actively seeks its own show, the most meaningful representation of itself.” Screens and platforms have proliferated since Canudo’s day but the pursuit endures. For those who’ve come to doubt that their own show is the only, let alone the best one out there, the least harmful option is to enable as many people as possible to have their moment on the stage. 7 billion Others has become a self-sustaining reaction open to all and San Diegans can upload their own film or text to: http://www.7billionothers.org/your-testimonies.
While most of the interviews are also on the web site this is an exhibition that should be seen with fellow members of the seven billion club. If you can only make it to one museum this spring, or even just one show, make it this one.
FROM FEBRUARY 21 TO SEPTEMBER 13, 2015
Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily
MOPA – Museum of Photographic Arts
1649 El Prado
San Diego, CA 92101