Last October I attended a pre-screening of the first feature film of independent filmmakers at Grassroots Films, The Human Experience. I was familiar with their previous work: they had done an powerful infomercial on the priesthood called, Fishers of Men for the USCCB, and a short documentary about a Eucharistic Procession on the streets of New York City which was beautifully done. Both showed that these two men had great promise as Catholic filmmakers.
The Human Experience is the story of two young men, Clifford and Jeffrey Azize, who, as young men are prone to do, seek the meaning of their own existence. Since they hail from Brooklyn, you might expect them to seek meaning on the streets of New York, and they do, only they put themselves in the shoes of the homeless in order not only to film them, but to understand them. On the coldest night of the year, with temperatures near zero degrees.
The plight of the homeless in New York is something I both studied as a graduate student of Social Work in Manhattan, and labored with as a Social Worker with Catholic Charities. I set up literacy programs in soup kitchens and tutoring programs in poor parishes. I taught high school in poor neighborhoods to angry teens who had never met their fathers and had already committed felonies. I thought I knew the poor of New York. But I have never lived with them, not even for one cold night as these men did. The open discussion, which they were able to film, between themselves and these homeless individuals was something I've never seen whether in my personal experience or on film.
What moved me most was the optimism of these poorest of the poor. Many of those interviewed were absolutely certain that God had his Hand on them, and that He had a plan for their lives. They were hurt by the indifference around them, but not crushed. Perhaps part of God's plan was the way they would touch us by their testimony that frigid night in New York. They taught us that having a great job or fancy home is not the meaning of life.
I was looking forward to the next segment with the disabled children in Peru. My daughter has Down syndrome, so the joy in these children's faces is part of my daily experience of motherhood. I was not disappointed. The children, most of whom lived in deplorable conditions of poverty and neglect, were absolutely bursting with enthusiasm for life. They ate up the attendtion of the men and their friends, and within a simple therapy trip to the hospital, it was obvious that another powerful life lesson was learned. Physical perfection is not the meaning of life. Loving one another is.
Then, off to Africa to visit the desperately ill within the dreaded leper colony, and the modern plague, HIV. Again, hope in the midst of illness, societal rejection, and grinding poverty. Death is looming for many of these people, and an uncertain future. But the sense of hope and loving community somehow upholds them. What is their secret? The filmmakers interject black and white shots of modern day philosphers, including Fr. John Neuhaus, offering their ideas on the meaning of life.
The sequence of the Eucharistic procession through the African rain forest, and the words of the Muslim cleric divulged part of the secret to the happiness of these ill and dying financially destitute people. Their eyes were able to see beyond this world to the one beyond. To someone who loves them. The meaning of life is having an eternal purpose.
By far the most powerful part of the film is the surprise ending where one of the young men puts his newfound knowlege into practice in an unexpected way. An unforgettable way. At the disccussion following the standing ovation, Fr. Benedict Groeschel praised the film for it's role in the New Springtime of Evangelization. I was perpelxed, the religious content of the film was far less than their previous work. He went on to explain that those in this culture need to be met where they are in order to be brought to the Truth. And it's a long journey, this discovering of the meaning of the Human Experience.
The website of the film lists locations where the rough-cut version can be screened.