Credit: Fred Scott/Human Person Ltd
by Daniel Gorman Featured Film Horizon Line

Being a Human Person | Fred Scott

July 2, 2021

Being a Human Person ends up a bit formless, but it presents a complex portrait both of an artist and of the disconnect between action and intent.

While most director profiles are typically publicity-adjacent puff pieces or glorified hagiographies, there are nonetheless occasional major works in this highly specific, specialized form: Chris Marker’s AK and One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich (about Kurosawa and Tarkovsky, respectively) and Claire Denis’ Jacques Rivette, le veilleur spring immediately to mind. The DVD era effectively relegated these sorts of essayistic survey films to the arena of “bonus materials,” little bits of business made available for the faithful few but nevertheless shunted to the side all the same. Perhaps, then, the most impressive thing about Being a Human Person, a new documentary profile by Fred Scott on the great Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson, is that it functions as an actual film and not merely B-roll to throw on the second disc of a special edition collector’s item.

Following the success of 2014’s A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, which won the Golden Lion (aka Best Picture) at that year’s Venice Film Festival (and, by his own admission, gave the director the enthusiasm to continue working), Andersson decides to embark on what he says will be his final film. Scott uses the production of what will eventually become 2019’s About Endlessness (released in the U.S. a few shorts months ago) as the loose structure on which to hang this profile, tracing this new film from its genesis in early 2017 through its various stages of production and all the way to its triumphant premier at the 2019 Venice Film Fest, where Andersson would win an award for Best Director. It’s a lovely grace note to end on, but it’s a difficult road to get there, which Scott captures in patient detail and with seemingly unlimited access to Andersson himself, his extended family, and his tireless crew.

The portraiture begins in earnest with remarkable footage from inside Andersson’s famed Studio 24; Andersson both lives there and constructs all of his meticulously detailed sets on its soundstage. Scott offers some contextual information for the uninitiated — how each scene in an Andersson film takes, on average, one month to build, film, and then tear down to make room for the next, as well as breakdowns of the various incredible trompe l’oeil effects that give the impression of deep, recessed backgrounds and expansive cityscapes. It’s fascinating stuff, but Scott is interested in more than the recording of discrete, chronological events, instead assembling all manner of archival interview footage, photographs, clips from Andersson’s previous films, and even brief snippets of his commercial work. It’s an abundance of fruitful material for Andersson fans, and even if one already knows the general contours of the man’s work, it’s a distinct pleasure to spend time in his company. It’s all very genial, and if it’s occasionally formless, with various modes and formats butting up against each other seemingly willy-nilly, Being a Human Person gradually becomes something deeper and darker, as Andersson’s drinking becomes increasingly problematic. Suddenly, About Endlessness is behind schedule, money is running out, and Andersson is forced to consider entering rehab to dry out.

It’s not much of a spoiler to say that everything eventually works out; About Endlessness’ release and the status of Andersson’s health (still alive and kicking) are a matter of public record, just a Google search away. What fascinates, then, is Scott trying (and sometimes failing) to reconcile disparate accounts of Andersson, from the director himself as well his family and crew. As anyone who’s seen any of Andersson’s films can attest, the man has a particularly mordant sense of humor, with an emphasis on sad-sack losers and assorted grotesqueries that populate his distorted, sometimes outlandish approximations of downtrodden modern life. But behind the scenes, Andersson is all smiles, laughing and glad-handing with his crew while fussing over set dressings and supervising the production design. At various points throughout the film, Andersson declares his love of his characters, his audience, and the life-changing possibilities of art. Indeed, here’s a man seemingly driven to create, but the obsessive nature of his films is obvious to anyone who’s laid eyes on them, and while his crew loves him like a father, they are gradually driven to exhaustion while bemoaning his refusal to curb his drinking. A distinct lack of morale is palpable when Andersson quits a 30-day rehab stint after only 10 days, demanding that someone come pick him up so that he can return to the studio and get back to work. While going over different potential titles for the film, Andersson declares About Endlessness “not perfect, but not bad.” This is immediately followed by an interview in which a designer says that Andersson demands perfection, never settling for just “okay” or “not bad.” Far from being a gotcha moment — Scott is far too enamored of Andersson for that — it’s instead a testament to intentions versus actions, some nebulous gray area where dedication and perseverance cross over into a kind of madness.

Elsewhere, while Andersson’s ex-wife is nowhere to be seen in Being a Human Being, his adult daughter Sandra is. As Andersson looks over a hand-drawn birthday card from his 5-year-old granddaughter, he extols the importance of family, while Sandra states flatly and without affect that Andersson had no real use for his family, instead obsessed only with his films. Frankly, Scott could have pulled on this thread more, but even the suggestion of this potent disconnect between words and actions makes an impression. If it is, in the end, impossible to get at the true heart of Andersson, Scott at least does an admirable job presenting a multiplicity of perspectives, each a facet of this curious man, and each compelling in their own way. Being a Human Person is bookended by trips to Venice, and the footage from 2014, on the eve of A Pigeon Sat on a Branch premiering, juxtaposed with scenes from 2019, is a jarring reminder of our own inevitable mortality. Andersson is older, slower, and quicker to anger. But he relishes the applause of the festival audience, and as Being a Human Person ends, Andersson is again preparing a new project. Perfectly content to leave it unfinished, he simply wants to keep working. Maybe he’ll make it another few years after all.