The Canadian premiere of The Human Experience screened on Friday night at Dante Alighieri High School. It was a low-budget setting–in the auditorium, with hard folding chairs, and no air conditioning. The filmmakers are working on increasing the film’s distribution and hopefully will succeed because as of now, there are no scheduled showings in Canada. Here’s a brief commentary on the film that might be helpful.
The Human Experience is the documented experience of two brothers, Cliff and Jeffrey Azize, who decide to open themselves to new experiences in order to grapple with questions of identity, the meaning of life, and what it means to be human. In “reality TV” style that for the most part rings sincere, the brothers’ journey takes them to share life with the homeless in a New York city winter, spend time with children who suffer from severe disabilities in Peru, and encounter people who suffer from leprosy and HIV/Aids in Ghana. The Human Experience resoundingly reaffirms the giftedness of every human life, the importance of family, and the resilience of the human spirit amid tremendous sufferings and challenges. The vision of the film is a powerful and uplifting tool to encourage young people especially to reflect on the brothers’ honesty and the insights of the various experts and companions on their journey. The repeated “summing up” of lessons learned, and a forced ending makes this a powerful educational tool for the classroom, but less appealing to a more general audience.
With the exception of the ending, Cliff and Jeffrey’s honesty and sincerity leap touchingly off the screen, and compel attention. Their courage in so dramatically leaving their comfort zone and to so honestly share their experiences is undeniable. The filmmakers effectively share the vibrant voices of the people that the brothers encounter–their shooting 150 hours of footage really pays off because the shots and the encounters are effective–every moment in New York and Peru feels real. Nothing staged, nothing exaggerated. Well-paced and well-shot, the film is reality-based but also easy to watch.
The goal of the brothers is not as compelling as it could be–a generic desire to grow into better human beings by expanding one’s experience is admirable, but it takes the film in many directions and fragments its sense of unity. This lack of unity is illustrated best by the disappointing ending which, although admirable in itself, is disconnected from the rest of the film and feels forced. In addition, several times the story’s focus shifted from the brothers to various companions on that lap of the journey. This meant that the compelling sense of narrative was lost, dissipating the power of the brothers’ testimony, and making the film feel more “preachy” than it needed to be. Lack of subtlety in the soundtrack and in the repetitious “summing up” of issues by various experts also gave some sense of feeling manipulated or preached at, rather than witnessed to. The film might have stronger general appeal if the narrative themes were tightened and the commentaries of the experts limited. But as a classroom tool, this film is powerful as it is.
Definitely a Window to the Soul
Brothers Jeffrey and Cliff, director Charles Kehane, and writer Michael Campo deserve great credit in grappling with the “big questions” of life in a coherent narrative that is compelling and timely. Using the personal memoir/reality TV genre that is familiar and fascinating, they took difficult material, personalized it, and turned it into a journey that many young people can relate to. This so easily could have been an intellectual, philosophical and moral jumble that was completely unwatchable. Instead, they pull it off, impressing indelible images into the minds and hearts of the viewers–images that can open the door to the questions that all of us need to pay attention to.
For those who might find it helpful, here are some of the themes that the brothers’ journey highlights:
- the giftedness of each human life
- the importance and gift of family
- the implications of a child lacking the love of one or more parents
- the power of forgiveness
- the importance of the desire to grow as a person
- the interconnectedness of every life–the fact that we are all connected because we are all human
- the beauty of the diversity of human experience–in culture, beliefs, attitudes, etc.