Human Experience (2007)

The Human Experience
(rated PG-13, 2007), produced by Grassroots Films, is a uniquely moving documentary about the attempt of two brothers to understand their place in the world through putting themselves into the shoes of others. The films producers (Jeff and Cliff Azize, who are also the protagonists in the film) explain that the purpose of doing this is to find those unique common experiences shared by all human beings - those things that all humans share in common and that can serve as the basis for meaningful dialogue among peoples of divergent backgrounds and cultures.

They do this through three "experiences." In their first experience, the Azize brothers live homeless on the streets of New York City for an entire winter and in the process learn to appreciate the struggles and dignity of the homeless. Their second experience will take them to a medical facility for abused and crippled children in Peru, and their final experience leads them to a leper colony in Ghana. Their travels introduce us to many memorable characters, some of whom amuse us with their antics and others who tug our heart strings; the little baby with AIDS is pretty moving. In the end, the Azize brothers returns to New York and brings what they learned on their travels into their own life with an on-camera reconciliation with their estranged father, whom they had not seen in 13 years.

From a Catholic viewpoint, it is very interesting that through their travels and experiences the brothers will really latch on to the concept of suffering as the fundamental human experience. They see those suffering from material deprivations, from abuse, neglect, medical conditions and social ostracism, and conclude that suffering (with its correlation of compassion), are the quintessential common denominators that all human beings can relate to, and that consequently unite us all. While Catholic thinking would not necessarily make suffering the human experience, the video does use the universality of suffering to send a message about the universality of compassion and love. There are even some references to the Crucifixion as the ultimate intersection of love and suffering. So, in a certain sense, this movie is very Catholic. It has been shown at many Catholic parishes and was praised highly by the Archbishop of Denver (at the time Chaput) and the Archbishop of Krakow (Cardinal Dziwisz).

And yet, there are times when the film's emphasis on the universality of suffering and compassion almost negate everything else. Insofar as the film's message is "we are all called to love," it is one hundred percent spot on; but if the film's message is, "Human compassion is all that matters," then it strays a little bit. Unfortunately, I could not tell which message the film was sending. In its more syncretist moments, it shows us commentaries from a Muslim cleric, a Jewish rabbi and a Catholic priest all basically telling us that we need to be good and love one another. This is certainly true, but at times the film seems to suggest that even religious differences are of no real concern; that all religions can get together under a banner of a compassion that is purely human. I can't say the film taught this, but it sure smacked of it a little bit.

Overall it was a very decent film. I give it 2.5 tiaras. It would be 3 except for the streak of secular humanism. But it was a small streak.

Review by Boniface