Judge Paul Pritchard is experienced.
"Where there's life, there's hope."
With its good intentions and noble cause, it's sad to report that The Human Experience is a bitterly disappointing documentary. Fronted by the Azize brothers, Jeffrey and Clifford, this journey into what drives mankind quickly loses focus.
Fronted primarily by Jeffrey Azize, The Human Experience is the story of how he comes to better understand his place in the world. Raised in an unstable household, which included an abusive father, Jeffrey ended up at St. Francis House, a home for troubled youths. It becomes abundantly clear that his upbringing has caused Jeffrey to question his purpose, leading to his self-acknowledged troubles in putting trust in other people. In an attempt to better understand both himself and the spirit that drives people on through such adversity, Jeffrey partakes in a journey that sees him travel the world, and into the lives of some of life's most downtrodden.
Jeffrey's journey is split into three "experiences," starting with the Azize boys spending a week living with the homeless of New York City. Looking to find "hope, amongst the most hopeless," the segment features some genuinely warming testimonies from people whom society has neglected. In a trend that quickly becomes all too common as The Human Experience progresses, the documentary's emphasis on accentuating the positive masks the harsh realities of what we are seeing; it's difficult not to feel too much is skimmed over. I mean, really, should our hearts really be warmed after having witnessed people forced to live on the streets? I think not. I understand the truth goes against the remit of this film, but it feels manipulative and unjust.
"Experience II" is far more affecting for the audience, despite suffering from the same failings as the first. Jeffrey and Clifford join up with a group of surfers who run an organization called Surf for the Cause. This group travels the world looking for the perfect wave, while helping the local communities they travel through.
During their time with the group in Peru, Jeffrey and Clifford visit a home for sick children whose parents can't afford their treatments. The plight of children is not something one can easily dismiss, making this segment all the more powerful. A young boy, named Victor, stands out for his bravery, something he appears blissfully unaware of. Born with only one limb—his left leg—Victor uses it for everything: from feeding himself to playing. Abandoned by his parents due to his impediment, Victor is inspirational, as is a 6-year-old girl who was subjected to years of abuse before being rescued. Despite facing horrific violence at the hands of her father—which has left her unable to walk—this young girl shows a remarkable zest for life. Working with these children are volunteers who have come from around the world. Seeing these young people willingly give up the luxuries of home to help those desperately in need, is tremendously heartwarming.
The final experience is at once the most affecting, and also the most disappointing. Starting with the AIDS epidemic in Africa, we are witness to young men and women who have been robbed of a future after contracting this terrible disease. Accompanied by two friends—one of whom lost a mother to AIDS—we see the Azize brothers learn the harsh realities of living with AIDS in one of the most deprived areas in the world. The image of a baby, itself infected with AIDS, is one that is not easily forgotten. We see sufferers of the disease speak with great dignity about their lives and their hopes. Much like the visit to a leper colony that follows, it's really questionable where we are supposed to find inspiration from. Yes, the people we meet are brave, but are we to believe everyone in such predicaments is able to speak so positively? Brave or not, there is nothing to suggest these people are not being left to die. I personally find that hard to accept, and think that speaks volumes about us as a species far more than the many platitudes we are subjected to.
Without wanting to sound mean, and accepting that Jeffrey's childhood was clearly troubled, it soon begins to grate when we are subjected to yet another monologue on how he struggles to trust people due to his relationship with his father. With all due respect, having only moments ago witnessed an African baby infected with AIDS, it seems selfish to hear someone then go on to complain about their lot in life; it certainly puts things into context.
Call me cynical, but too often scenarios felt a little to knowing, a little too forced. This is a beautifully shot documentary, but along the way loses some of its honesty and heart. If one were to be overly analytical, it could be argued that some of the sound bites are nothing but fancy words with little meaning. Too often the filmmakers resort to throwing in evocative stock footage to elicit the response their work otherwise fails to earn. The documentary would have been far more powerful had it afforded more time to the various people the group meet on their travels, rather than limiting them to mere snippets. However, this is Jeffrey's journey, something confirmed in an unexpected family reunion in the film's finale. Putting aside the unnecessarily dressed-up reunion with his father (for another example of the "staged" nature of certain scenes, just check out the use of slow-mo for an example of this), I have to ask whether anyone who took part in this epic journey actually came any closer to finding their purpose, or discovered who they are? These are pressing questions, and not easily answered. Nobody seems any the wiser at the end, and no amount of evocative music can change my suspicion that nothing has really been learnt.
I genuinely believe there are good intentions behind The Human Experience, but it is confused in its approach, with one or two moments that reveal a less attractive side of its participants (see a spiteful tirade against an old school teacher that goes completely against the grain of the film's supposed sentiment). Beautiful to look at, but ultimately empty, The Human Experience just fails to connect.
The DVD contains a clean 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer, with natural colors. Audio also impresses. The disc contains a commentary track and picture gallery as extras.
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