Reviewed by: Rebecca Naughten

"It contains an interesting exploration of shamanistic beliefs, but it is also perfectly possible to view the entire proposition as an exercise in twenty-something navel-gazing."

Setting off into the Andean mountains armed with a camera and 200 questions, 25-year-old Alan Stivelman wanted to discover the meaning of our existence and the answers to fundamental questions about what it means to be human. Using shaman guide Plácido to help him find the right path to enlightenment, Alan went on an introspective and existential journey lasting three months - Humano is the resulting record of his experiences.

The film combines handheld footage of Alan's physical journey - such as his and Plácido's treks into the sacred mountains - and images of the awe-inspiring natural surroundings, with animated sequences (by Juan Manuel Barberis) and diary-like segments, in which Alan addresses his thoughts to the camera. The result is curious. It contains an interesting exploration of shamanistic beliefs because Plácido explains various concepts and practices, but it is also perfectly possible to view the entire proposition as an exercise in twenty-something navel-gazing.

The viewer's take on the film and its philosophical musings may well be dependent on their disposition towards spiritual enlightenment and its teachings in general. Near the end of the film, Plácido makes the observation to Alan that unless other people have been through the same experience, whatever Alan says about it will simply be 'a story' - and it is difficult to represent such a philosophical (and emotional) endeavour in either a visual or verbal form.

Arguably, in such instances, there will often be a distance between subject and viewer that a conventional film will find hard to bridge. What Plácido tries to teach Alan is not only specific knowledge but also a different way of thinking, including aspects of what Westerners would call 'mindfulness' - effectively attuning yourself to physical sensations, emotions and thoughts in a given moment in a meditative way. But for this viewer, teachings such as "To learn about humanity, first you need to be human" are perhaps best absorbed in the way seen in the film - listened to in conjunction with taking hallucinogenic drugs at a high altitude.

The film's animated sequences are nonetheless an effective way of breaking up the more traditional documentary and diary footage, and an actual illustration of Plácido's argument that not everything can be explained with words. The animations inventively convey elements that would otherwise have to be stated straight to camera - such as a story told by Plácido about his grandmother, or a meeting with an elderly female shaman that Alan was not allowed to film - and offer a visual sense of the unreal to support Alan's existential exploration of other 'dimensions'.

If Alan ends the film feeling that he has accomplished what he set out to do and obtained the knowledge that he was searching for, this insight into the human condition is not clearly imparted to the viewer. The film understandably struggles to represent the director's journey to enlightenment - it is difficult to give form to something that is so introspective and personal to the individual on that journey. Humano is a film perhaps best suited to those who are already on an introspective journey themselves and who are receptive to the teachings that Alan opens himself up to.

Reviewed on: 24 May 2015
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Humano packshot
Twenty-five-year-old Alan sets off on an existential journey to discover the meaning of what it is to be human.

Director: Alan Stivelman

Writer: Alan Stivelman

Year: 2013

Runtime: 85 minutes

Country: Argentina, Peru, Bolivia


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