FOND DU LAC — The award-winning documentary film “The Human Experience” follows a band of brothers who travel the world in search of answers to fundamental questions: “Who am I?” “Who is Man?” “What is the meaning of life?” On Nov. 13-14, the Nazareth Project of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee sponsored three showings of “The Human Experience” in Wisconsin. Two of the actors in and producers of the film, Jeffrey and Clifford Azize, flew to Milwaukee for the showings at Marian University in Fond du Lac, Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee, and the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, drawing a collective audience of approximately 1,100 viewers.
Man’s search for meaning
Through real-life interviews and encounters, the men discover the qualities that unite humanity – from a one-limbed child in Peru to New York’s men and women on the streets to an abandoned leper colony in Africa. The film focuses on what it means to be human and the beauty and resilience of the human spirit.
Produced by Grassroots Films of Brooklyn, N.Y., “The Human Experience” has won more than 30 awards and accolades internationally, including Best Humanitarian Film, Best Feature Film, and Best Documentary Feature. Grassroots Films is also known for its successful production of “Fishers of Men,” a video that has sparked priestly vocations.
A haven of hope
Grassroots Films is a media offshoot of St. Francis House, a Catholic home in Brooklyn for inner city youth who need a second chance in life. Cliff and Jeff were some of those boys, explained Cliff in an interview with your Catholic Herald. Cliff and his younger brother Jeff grew up in a family crippled by alcoholism, drugs and an abusive father.
In St. Francis House, they found not only a safe haven but a supportive family of brothers. Founded in 1967 as a halfway home, the house has developed under director Joseph Campo, whose devotion in life is to help kids in need, explained Cliff. Campo has become a father to the boys in the home, whose ages range from 18 and older. It currently houses approximately a dozen men, from troubled, impoverished backgrounds.
Everybody’s got talent
Campo, who serves as director of St. Francis House and executive producer of Grassroots Films, sees potential in each of the boys who comes to the home.
“Campo believes in everyone’s talent,” said Cliff.
When they discovered Charles Kinnane’s talent with a video camera, Grassroots Films, a creative film and advertising corporation run by the residents of St. Francis House, was born.
First a home, second a business
Every night the men share dinner around the table at St. Francis House. Mealtimes spent together give them an experience of home life they never had – and an opportunity to brainstorm ideas for films.
“It’s what changed our lives – the guys at St. Francis House. It’s a home first, business second,” said Cliff.
From dinner table discussions grew the idea, “Let’s make a film to emphasize the beauty of human life,” said Jeff.
Finding hope among the hopeless
Jeff and Cliff set out in February 2007 to spend the coldest week of winter living on the streets of New York, sleeping in cardboard boxes, begging for food and visiting soup kitchens. The goal was to produce a video about the experience of being homeless in New York. Down the streets and alleyways, they interviewed homeless people to find out the reason for their hope and what they believed was the meaning of life.
While they originally planned to create a 15-minute segment, they believe God had a much bigger plan. From the streets of New York, the brothers were picked up by a group headed to Peru to surf and to aid orphans and disabled children in Lima. Eventually, their brotherhood journeyed to meet lepers in Ghana, Africa. Along the way, Jeff, Cliff, Charles, Michael Campo and Joseph Campo found faith, hope and love amid intense suffering and poverty.
The best part, according to Jeff, was meeting the people.
“You get to know who they are and why they are that way, to see how joyful and hopeful these people are,” he said. “And here they are thanking us; that’s the greatest and the hardest part. You go there and think you’re going to help them, but they teach you so much more than anything you can teach them.”
A film for youth
Today’s youth often feel lost in a secular world and seek meaning in their lives, according to the brothers.
“Hollywood targets the 12-year-old boy. Everyone is trying to attack the youth. We want to tell them there are other things greater in life, give them a positive influence. Life is a gift,” said Jeff.
“There’s a lot of kids who are suffering,” said Cliff, who has seen the suffering in his own home and met children suffering from horrible physical conditions. “Having faith in general, in a higher power, it frees you. It gives youth strength to be who they really need to be, with their leader as God.”
That faith motivates them.
“Faith is the only way I know how to live life,” said Jeff.
Preach without words
“The Human Experience” reaches across all faiths and cultures to deliver its message, which resonates with those who have experienced love, pain, compassion, heartache, forgiveness and brotherhood.
The film is universal in its message.
Jeff said, “We try to keep God out of the film,” in order to invite all human beings in, whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist or other faiths. Rather than argue for the beauty of each human life, they believe there is nothing more telling than human experience itself, so they preach about the dignity of life through the range of human experiences.
Journey to forgiveness
According to the men, making the movie transformed their lives. For Cliff, the most transformative part was being with the homeless and watching Jeff come to forgive their father. Cliff shared the need for forgiveness today. For anyone struggling to have a good relationship with their fathers, this film gives them the example of forgiveness in a real tear-jerker scene.
“Through forgiveness you find the others – faith, hope, love,” said Cliff.
Shown in more than 100 cities and in 15 different countries, “The Human Experience” has recently been released on DVD.
A miracle gift of money
Lydia LoCoco, director of the Nazareth Project for Marriage and Family Formation, said she felt God’s hand in bringing the film to the archdiocese. About eight months after praying to bring “The Human Experience” to Milwaukee, an unexpected sum of money appeared, specifically for use to feature a respect life film. The money covered all expenses “enough to show it not one time but three times,” said LoCoco, adding, “God is abundant.”
The Nazareth Project, part of the John Paul II Center, provides resources and programs for marriage, families and young adults, and supports the church’s teaching on human sexuality, natural family planning and respect life.