What does it mean to stay human? In the face of public cynicism, physical and emotional violence, personal pain, and communal poverty, how do we as individuals and as a community retain our grasp on humanity? That’s what director/writer/musician Michael Franti asks in his documentary Stay Human, a deeply personal dive into the problems and the passions that bind us together as human beings.
Stay Human focuses on four stories about people with whom Franti has come into contact, whether from his experience of them as fans or in his travels and interests as a social activist musician. The film encapsulates social, cultural, environmental, and personal narratives that attempt to lay bare how to “stay human,” and what that even means. He opens with a general thesis about his project and his personal connection to this problem of maintaining humanity in the face of cynicism, then delves into the first narrative about Robin Lim, a midwife in the Philippines who established the Bumi Sehat Foundation for expectant and new mothers. Lim has since helped over nine thousand children into the world, but her foundation is about more than just maternity care. She helps with home births, keeps mothers and babies connected, and goes into areas devastated by natural disasters to ensure that children and mothers are cared for. Her project encapsulates Franti’s project of connectedness and maintain connection to our families, our communities, and the natural environment.
Stay Human doesn’t stop with the activities of foundations, however, looking into the personal as part of the communal. The Dezembers are fans of Franti’s, and they married not long after Steve Dezember’s ALS diagnosis. Arief Rabik, an Indonesian environmental scientist, explains his project for making bamboo an acceptable lumber alternative and helping to maintain work and sustainability in local communities; Sive Mazinyo and Busisiwwe Vazi are educated at “cradle to career” center in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, and detail their reasons for getting an education, providing not only hope for themselves, but for others in their families and community. Interspersed with the stories are Franti’s own experiences as he deals with personal traumas, the place of music in his life, his family, and his work.
While this film could come off as an attempt to cash in on a social activist brand, there is a disarming earnestness in Franti’s on-screen persona and in the material of the film itself that pushes against the idea that it’s a cynical cash-grab. Franti is not attempting to solve all the world’s problems or argue that his music is the way to right social wrongs, but to take a personal look at what it means to be human in a world where we are consistently pushed away from our individual humanity, our connection to others, and our connection to the natural world. While each section of the narrative is designed to produce some feel-good vibes, one of the strengths of Stay Human is that it does not come off as pandering or, worse, showcasing these stories for cheap sentimentality. The narratives detail suffering and resilience without becoming poverty porn; they are about community and recognizing our humanity in the faces of other humans. Franti asks the Dezembers how they’ve dealt with Steve’s diagnosis financially, and they are open about how difficult it has been, and how much they’ve relied on the kindness of others. Lim explains that a large portion of the Filipino population are young, pregnant women, and that part of her project has been to pressure the government and aid workers to obtain needed supplies for an impoverished, often homeless population. Rabik shows the connection between creating sustainable resources and maintaining community, a marriage of the environment and the social system. Mazinyo and Vazi are empowered by their community, and they in turn give hope to the next generation by their examples.
The documentary sometimes falls back on the trappings of the social activist documentary, especially at the beginning, when it shows Franti buddying up to his fans, or shots of him walking, barefoot and in slow motion, through golden wheat. But there is an earnestness that comes through, even when the films threatens to become corny. It’s still being honest with itself and with its project, as though the film is challenging a viewer’s (or a critic’s) inherent cynicism and distrust.
Stay Human makes no bones about this being a passion project of Franti’s, and it relies heavily on his personal experiences, voice, and perspective. But because it sets him front and center, because it doesn’t claim to be objective but in fact revels in its very subjectivity, it allows the viewer to decide whether to accept Franti’s personal conclusions about humanness, or to reject them. There’s no chicanery here, no lies, and no sales pitch at the end. In a time when we are consistently barraged by hateful rhetoric, by distinctions that try to wrench us away from our common humanity, it’s refreshing and moving to see a film, however subjective, that asks us unironically to be good to one another, to maintain our humanity by seeing others as humans, too.
Stay Human is available on VOD (including iTunes and Amazon) on January 25, 2019.