Frequent collaborators Michael Pitiot and Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s documentary, Terra is a sprawling but impressively shot ode to the planet. Between mesmerising shots of Mount Roraima swathed in clouds and stomach-churning visuals of a slaughterhouse in China, the film maps the evolution of life on Earth before dwelling on the widening chasm between humans and other forms of life. The 98-minute long film was first broadcast during COP 21 — the Paris Climate Conference in 2015. Pitiot talked to The Hindu about his documentary, from a remote island part of the Chausey archipelago while shooting for his next. Edited excerpts from the telephonic interview…
How did you piece together Terra and plan out its narrative?
We spent roughly two years producing the movie, and around 450 people worked on it. We had eight different directors of photography – each specialised in a different field. It’s the basis of movies I direct with Yann — they are all, from a photographic point of view, an experience; a new way to see our Earth.
Deciding what to shoot is a bargain. When we open our eyes to the world around us, we have to be ready for the unexpected, so we have to be flexible. For instance, I was looking for a way to show the early stages of reptiles and dinosaurs, and I didn’t want to rely on CGI. One of my cameramen, Paul Windman from South Africa, was heading to the Galapagos Islands. I made the connection that we could shoot the dinosaur-like iguanas there. That wasn’t in the script initially.
What made you choose actor Vanessa Paradis as the narrator?
I wanted a voice with a soft tone because this film isn’t about judgement. It was very important for the film not to say there are good guys and bad guys — everybody is in the same boat. The position of the movie and the narrator is to say “we” are leading this, and “we” are changing this.
The film is shot across over 20 countries. What was the most striking thing you came across?
A new experience was to shoot in the rainforest in Venezuela. I flew over the forest for hours in the helicopter looking for the tepuis [table-top mountains] in the middle of the forest. It’s a very remote place. I realised how fantastic my planet is. I directed a movie about space [the yet-to-be released Hommes du Bout du Monde], and I worked with astronauts for that. What they all said was that once you step into space, when you leave Earth, you first look for the planet. You realise that [Planet Earth] is the most beautiful place in the universe. I think I had the same [experience] in Venezuela. It was a very powerful vision.
Some visuals are harrowing and tough to watch. What reaction were you going for?
We are just bringing audience facts and elements to understand. So everybody can grab what they want to grab. But even we had a hard time shooting the sacrifices at Nepal’s Gadhimai festival – they were the last ones, fortunately [animal sacrifice was put to an end in 2015]. We knew while shooting that, this sort of ritual was not just a story connected to other people, but that it was our story. Why do we need to sacrifice life to have a better existence? It’s something we have invented. So we need to rewind this.
You’ve reported on conflict-ridden Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) and Rwanda in the 90s. And both Planet Ocean (2012) and Terra explore the troubling burden humanity poses to natural ecosystems. How do you cope with the difficult realities you encounter?
I was in Rwanda in ’91 [during the Civil War], it was pretty hard. But when you’ve seen that at the beginning of your career, everything seems to be easy in the end. At 21, I saw men my age killing each other with big knives. I was filming them and wondering why I was there, and why they were there. But when I’m in a bad situation today, I just think that I’m here to witness it and to narrate it. So I have to preserve myself and keep going.
There’s one film about the geological history of France [what I’m currently shooting], one about Egypt, and another on the relationship between humans and animals. The last is Hommes du Bout du Monde [Men of the End of the World] which narrates the journey of an astronaut circling planet Earth.
In the next stage of my career I want to experiment with fictional features.
Terra is currently streaming on Netflix