What do you do after you make the acclaimed vocations film about the priesthood, Fishers of Men, and follow it up with God in the Streets of New York, a documentary following a Eucharistic procession in Manhattan?
If you’re the folks at Grassroots Films in Brooklyn, N.Y., you tackle a feature-length documentary that examines just what the title proclaims: The Human Experience.
It’s little wonder that this film has already captured 26 honors at national and international film festivals, including Best Documentary, Best Humanitarian Film and Award of Excellence. At the Moving Image Film Festival in Toronto, The Human Experience won the grand prize for Best Feature Film. On Nov. 7 in Miami, it will be one of the films contending for the People’s Festival Award at the inaugural John Paul II International Film Festival.
“Hauntingly beautiful,” exclaimed First Things magazine. The film is capturing the hearts of audiences at every prescreening at churches, Catholic and secular high schools and universities, and various other venues.
The film follows four young men searching for what it means to be human in their lives and in places shunned by Hollywood tinsel factories: among the homeless in New York, with disabled children in Lima, Peru, a village and abandoned lepers in Ghana, Africa.
The young men in front of and behind the cameras live at St. Francis House in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. It was founded in 1967 by Father Benedict Groeschel of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal to give young men a new chance in life.
Those same men provided the film’s inspiration.
“All the guys who live here at the house are always asking the questions ‘What’s life really about? Where am I going? Is it all worth it?’” says the film’s producer, Joseph Campo. “We decided we wanted to be able to answer those questions about life and do it through the eyes of the St. Francis House guys and the people they met along the way.”
The Human Experience turns out to be a pro-life film that takes in all mankind, as it shows the beauty of human life, faith, hope, love, forgiveness and joy people have even in the midst of suffering.
Everything is seen as it truly happened.
Says Campo, “Viewers are watching something that happened in real time, which makes the film come really alive.”
“The Human Experience offers hope in what looks like hopeless situations by showing the power of the human spirit,” Campo continues. “You’re watching people triumph over circumstances” — from the disabled Peruvian children’s nearly constant joy and smiles to the lepers’ unshakeable faith. They don’t look for happiness in things that are fleeting as people in the West mostly do. “What we discovered with the people in Africa or Peru is they have real joy.”
Campo points out the film appeals because it brings out these kinds of truths that humans really search for.
“We wanted to emphasize life is beautiful and has potential no matter who you are or where you are from,” says his 27-year-old son, Michael Campo, Grassroots’ associate producer.
Michael appears in the film and lives with the men at St. Francis House, which is officially directed by the elder Campo. “We think there’s a message here for everyone, no matter who you are or what your culture or religion. The message is: God gives us all a purpose.”
Michael describes the time interviewing an African woman suffering with leprosy. Her only possessions were a cot and a bucket. The filmmakers asked, “What would you say to people who don’t believe in God?” Everyone well remembers her immediate answer, according to Michael: “She looked and said: ‘Tell them to believe in God.’ It was so simple to her. Every day she woke up she knew God had a purpose for her.”
Jeffrey Azize, the 22-year-old central actor in the film and St. Francis resident (his brother Clifford also appears), had a similar reaction.
“Even in their sufferings, and the AIDS epidemic, they had so much faith in God,” he said. “They had not much food, clothes, no TV — no distractions. They prostrate themselves, and pray to God. They were being there for one another and literally take the shirt off their backs and give it to someone else.”
Adds Michael Campo, “Once there, you realize these people are helping you understand true relationship and what life is about.”
Viewers have also been moved by the resilience of the disabled Peruvian children and how they want to live. It has been the same for the homeless on New York City streets, where the Azize brothers lived during the coldest week in February.
Their quest revealed all the homeless people on the street do not have mental problems, as many people believe. Viewers tell the filmmakers either during question-and-answer sessions at the screenings or after in literally hundreds upon hundreds of e-mails that they can never walk past a homeless person in the same way, says Joseph Campo.
Previously, these viewers blamed homeless people for their situation, but now they “will always treat them with love, kindness and respect,” he says.
It seemed that everything fell together flawlessly for The Human Experience. That included Grassroots’ find in young Charles “Chuck” Kinanne, the director and editor, who came to New York as an intern in a film company and is staying at St. Francis House.
And the music score, Joseph points out, was written specifically for The Human Experience and played by a 30-piece orchestra. The soundtrack, which includes inserts from Jimmy Durante and Bob Marley, was carefully chosen to seamlessly enhance every scene. “Music to me is God’s language,” he says. “It reaches deep down in to the innermost parts of your soul and speaks to you.”
As Grassroots talks to distributors for future general release, prescreenings continue nationally and internationally. Last May Joseph traveled to Germany, Switzerland, Austria, as well as to Rome for screenings at the Pontifical North American College for seminarians and the Swiss Guard. In addition to bookings across the United States, this November a second European tour includes screenings in England and Ireland.
Wherever Joseph goes, however, the goal remains the same: “It’s our hope that when people view the film something in their life changes for the better.”
He says the section on forgiveness resonates because “everyone needs to forgive someone or be forgiven. That in itself is enough to change people’s hearts.”
“The film also makes you realize how much you have and how you can share it,” he adds. “It helps you have empathy for the poor. It adds dignity to those who have less than you and gives you an appreciation for life and those around you.”
Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.MORE INFO:
To learn more or to host or schedule a screening, visit GrassrootsFilms.com or call (718) 349-7622.
For more information on the Pope John Paul II International Film Festival, visit JP2FilmFestival.com.
ON LOCATION. Actor Jeffrey Azize (l) and producer-cinematographer Joseph Campo shoot a scene from The Human Experience on a beach in Barranca, Peru. Courtesy of Grassroots Films