VOD film review: Stay Human
Matthew Turner | On 25, Jan 2019
Director: Michael Franti
Cast: Michael Franti, Robin Lim, Steve Dezember, Hope Dezember, Carole Franti
Watch Stay Human online in the UK: Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Google Play
Named after the title of his 2000 album, this is the second documentary from musician and humanitarian Michael Franti, following 2005’s I Know I’m Not Alone. Specialising in uplifting, politically charged folk music (both with his band Spearhead and in his solo career), Franti is fascinated by humanity and what it means to stay human, especially in these troubled times. Accordingly, the film represents a strikingly personal journey, as he introduces us to several people who have inspired hope and optimism, as well as sharing his own powerfully moving story.
Structurally, the film follows Franti, who provides both on-camera commentary and voiceover narration, as he visits a handful of uniquely inspirational people he’s become friends with over the years. These include: Philippine midwife Robin Lim, who travels around the world establishing birthing clinics in disaster zones; American wife Hope Dezember, whose husband Steve is fighting a devastating battle with ALS; environmental scientist Arief Rabik, who’s combating deforestation by making household products with bamboo; and South Africans Sive Mazinyo and Busisiwwe Vazi, who inspire their impoverished community of Port Elizabeth through their own achievements in education and music.
Franti intersperses these profiles (a mixture of to-camera interviews and footage of them showing Franti around) with intensely personal and revealing details of his own background, notably growing up as one of two adopted black children with second generation Finnish immigrant parents, who also had three children of their own. The context this provides to Franti’s personal journey is extremely emotional, particularly when he talks about his father’s alcoholism and the way he often felt like an outsider within his own family.
Franti’s close bond with his mother is keenly felt throughout the film and there are a number of deeply moving sequences, whether it’s a simple phone call when he’s feeling down after horrific-looking knee surgery, or a lovely scene where he sings her the song she inspired (which is also the title of the film).
As an interviewer, Franti has a friendly and open presence and he gives his subjects space to tell their own stories. This leads to some intriguing details, such as Robin Lin outlining her firmly-held belief that people should be “born gently”, regardless of the chaos of their surroundings, an idea that’s not just about making sure the mother and child are as comfortable as humanly possible, but also that a peaceful birth will positively affect who you become as a person.
For most of the film, Franti has an observant, largely unobtrusive directing style, but he does allow himself a particularly effective moment of editing, when, after spending the majority of the Dezembers’ section with an emaciated Steve, unable to speak in the advanced stages of his illness, the film cuts back to when Franti first met them, with a healthy and happy Steve explaining how he intends to fight the disease.
Aside from the use the film makes of the title song, the film is perhaps less successful in connecting Franti’s music (and music in general) to the wider subject matter, but this remains a powerful and uplifting documentary with a vital and timely message for our troubled times.