Review: Who We Were
by Ola Salwa
- BERLINALE 2021: Marc Bauder’s ambitious documentary about the global humanitarian and environmental crisis conveys the same old bad news but from a slightly new angle
Presenting a documentary about the most dangerous threat to planet Earth, aka homo sapiens, at the Berlinale is like trying to reinvent the wheel. The city is already very eco-friendly, and so is the festival, promoting equality and inclusion, banning disposable, plastic cups and promoting all kinds of green initiatives. Adding Marc Bauder’s Who We Were [+see also:
interview: Marc Bauder
film profile] to the 2021 Berlinale Special programme is apparently such a move, and a bit of a risky one, too. On one hand, Berlin is the perfect festival for this film, yet at the same time, screening it here is like preaching to the converted.
The almost two-hour-long story about the impending end of the Anthropocene, as narrated by scientists, activists and astronauts, is tedious at first and repeats the same old news. Yet, after introducing “keynote speakers” Alexander Gerst (who is watching planet Earth quite literally from space), marine biologist Sylvia Earle, Buddhist and neuroscientist Matthieu Ricard, economist Dennis Snower, humanistic philosopher Janina Loh and Senegalese scholar Felwine Sarr, the story picks up the intellectual pace and, through interlacing different data and narratives, offers a complex and therefore fresher picture.
Most documentaries, with An Inconvenient Truth springing to mind first and foremost, focus on a single element of the global crisis and usually leave us with not a shred of hope that humans will change. In Who We Were, inspired by the writings of late German author Roger Willemsen, the picture is wider – as director Bauder visits a few continents as well as space – and offers glimmers of optimism. Earle claims that the oceans, not inhabited by humans, are the centre of our world, thus inspiring a change of perspective; Snower criticises the capitalism that has made our civilisation growth-orientated and obsessed with accumulating wealth, power and even information, without even being able to make sense of it; and Sarr explains that ancient drawings already anticipated mankind’s rampage and destruction of the Earth. The ray of hope comes, naturally, from the Buddhist. Presenting his findings on the brain’s neuroplasticity, Ricard claims that personality traits can be exercised and reinforced like any muscle, and so caring for the planet can be “flexed”, too. When Loh asks questions about what future generations will think of us, it provides much food for thought.
That said, the film feels overlong, repetitive and even banal at times, as even the brightest of minds can sometimes utter clichés like: “People are capable of good and evil.” Who We Were is just one of those documentaries that ends up being more interesting after the screening, when all the information can be squeezed out and analysed by the audience.
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