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Q&A: 'Unity' Director Discusses Humanity's Future

Super Typhoon Maysak, as seen from the International Space Station on March 31.
ESA/NASA/Samantha Cristoforetti
Super Typhoon Maysak, as seen from the International Space Station on March 31.

A couple weeks ago, I wrote a 13.7 post about the documentary Unity, written and directed by Shaun Monson, which opened Wednesday for a one-day screening in more than 1,000 theaters around the world.

With an unprecedented cast of 100 celebrity narrators, Unityis a manifesto for our times, a wake-up call to humanity to get together and make a difference — one person at a time. The timing couldn't be better, as it connects with Pope Francis' proclamation on global warming and President Obama's call for a major curbing of fossil fuel emissions.

At this moment in time, there is a convergence of factors, pulling together global warming and pollution control, organic farming and the discussion around genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the conversation about animal rights and vegetarianism, and the growth of private efforts to develop efficient energy-producing technologies with the goal of decreasing society's dependence on fossil fuels.

Monson is optimistic. Below is a conversation I had with him last week:

Your choice of the word Unity; it means different things for different people. What does this mean to you?

I chose this title for the same reason I chose the title for my previous movie Earthlings, a word you can't separate from. With earthlings, whether you are the queen of England or a beetle, you are an earthling. The tendency humans have to separate and distinguish is removed with a word like that. Unity has a similar role.

Was it an uphill struggle to make the movie? Ten years between Earthlings and Unity? Was it hard to find funds?

It took longer than I had hoped, for sure. I started in 2007 and hoped to have it done by 2010, at the latest. But I delivered it in 2012. And we tested it pretty extensively and we found it hard to cut it; half the viewers liked it and half didn't care much for it, saying it was too much truth. This presented a dilemma for a documentarian like me, since you are dealing with a nonfiction film and you find yourself in the editing stage having to choose how much truth do you leave in and how much you cut. So, it took me another year to get it cut just right and another year to find a distributor.

Earthlings is really heavy. I was rewatching it last night and, at some points, I could hardly look at the screen. Is it the same with Unity?

Well, Unity isn't as harsh, even the original cut wasn't as bad. One part we did change is we removed some footage of animal suffering. And because the film was about unity and had a philosophical angle, we discovered that people coming into the theater were anticipating a much happier, uplifting kind of a film and when it was so hard-hitting it surprised them. So, that's another reason why we toned it down.

I have a pet theory as to why you used all the celebrities to narrate, but I want to hear it from you.

If you are making a film and hope to release it to the general public, it does help to have a celebrity narrator, which is what I did with Earthlings. So, I knew that I was going to have Joaquin [Phoenix] coming back. I originally planned one narrator per chapter, and the original had six chapters and the final cut has five. But then I thought, why not use two per chapter? Say, a male and a female. That would be 12. Then, I thought why not four? Then, I came up with 25, an arbitrary number. No one had ever had 25 narrators in a movie, and we would weave these voices together. We had 35 narrators for the first cut and when I watched it I thought, "Hey, that's not enough!" The voices need to change, there should be a chorus of voices. There is nothing wrong with a single note; it can be beautiful. But it's not a symphony. And I started thinking of narration as music, as a symphony of voices, and the bigger the chorus the more beautiful the symphony. After that, I shot for the moon.

You divide the movie into five parts: Cosmos, Mind, Body, Heart and Soul. Did you consult with scientists while making it?

The only one I spoke with was Ann Druyan, Carl Sagan's widow. I always liked the way Sagan said things and I thought he was a good writer, especially for someone who wasn't an astronomer at all. So, I contacted her asking if I could use something, and she replied offering even more stuff to use. The book I referenced is Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors, that she wrote with Carl. I wasn't going for a scientific approach; I was trying to establish a feel for mortality and what it represents. Mind, Body, Heart, and Soul represent the totality of mortal existence in general terms, covering all the bases. But I had to establish the feel of connecting all this, and that's why we have the Cosmic chapter. It was my last chapter, originally designed to close the film. I thought it was nice to close showing how tiny we are, how small, our galaxy among billions of others, etc. But when we tested it, we found that it sedated the viewers because they had already passed through all the other stuff. So, I put it ahead of everything else.

Some people say that it's fine to call humans the bad guys, or to raise awareness, but what we need is solutions. How to feed 8 billion people, how to house them? Unless we have a very deep transformation of the way we eat and feed and build, things won't change. Do you have a response to this kind of criticism?

I do. There are many people out there providing help and programs. I don't feel that's my strength. I do feel that if I educate people, they can sort of police themselves in a way. A picture is worth a thousand words. If they see some picture, it plants a seed in their hearts and they will take their own steps. I'm not a scientist, but I think we could feed 12 billion people. It's not too many. But now you are talking about something much more difficult, behavior modification, and that's very, very hard. I think the Buddha said it once, "the greatest miracle in the world is to change a single thought." We are so identified with our thoughts and traditions and our culture that behavior modification is a real challenge. So, all I can do is plant some seeds, some ideas, and maybe people might look at things a little differently and maybe that's a first step.

I have been pursuing this notion that the root of all evil is tribalism, our allegiance to a certain group or idea to the exclusion of everyone else, as I wrote in my piece on Unity. Do you have any thoughts on this?

For sure. I saw your article and it's there in the film. And it's one of the reasons I made the film, because I find it so interesting. There is this story of a little girl in a concentration camp being forced to march to the gas chamber. She was moving slowly, being emotionally shattered and physically weak, but the guard hit her head with the butt of his rifle to speed her up. Now, this same guard had two daughters at home, about the same age. To his daughters he was a loving father. How could he separate his two lives in such a way?

Yes, the problem of dissociation. It's amazing how people can do that. But as we come to a close, I have a more uplifting question for you. Are you optimistic about the future?

Oh yes, I'm very optimistic. Change is happening; we can see it all around us. We are evolving; there is no question about it. At the time of Christ, they crucified people on the way to Rome. I live in LA and they don't crucify people coming here. Like slavery, suffragettes, the civil rights movement, the gay rights movement, the animal rights movement, things are changing. I have great hope for humanity. The arc of human history is long, but it does bend toward justice. It's slow, criminally slow you might say. But it's getting there.

Marcelo Gleiser is a theoretical physicist and cosmologist — and professor of natural philosophy, physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College. He is the co-founder of 13.7, a prolific author of papers and essays, and active promoter of science to the general public. His latest book is The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning. You can keep up with Marcelo on Facebook and Twitter: @mgleiser.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Marcelo Gleiser is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. He is the Appleton Professor of Natural Philosophy and a professor of physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College.