June 13, 2011


In case you haven't seen this film--released in April 2010, do. It's coming from a very unique (and good) place: a bunch of young guys from New York City with tough family backgrounds set out to make a film on the meaning of life as they travel around the world. Or rather, they set out to find the meaning of life. (The finished product is interspersed with interview-wisdom from pundits.) There are also well-spaced quotes from the likes of Viktor Frankl and Martin Luther King, Jr. If young people aren't reading as much these days, this is a great, visual way to pass on these legacies!

Everyone they meet along their gets their say in the film, too.

Don't be fooled by the quick-review-of-every-disaster-known-to-modern-man* at beginning of the trailer (and film)--my least favorite part of the film--because this film is deeply personal.

It takes on a sweeping breadth, but eventually achieves pinpoint focus.

In some ways, this is "Tree of Life" before "Tree of Life": The micro-macro beautiful shots of nature, the supremacy of family--particularly the father, the "cancer spores" and cosmos shots, opera soundtrack to ordinary life. How to explain this? When I was in film school, we asked our professors how Hollywood does it: a film comes out first and then the event actually happens in real life. The answer came back that artists are tapped into the zeitgeist (perhaps the Holy Spirit: zeitGeist), and are just prescient and pick up on these things! Terrence Malick's "Tree of Life" was thirteen years in the making, so it certainly predates "Human Experience." So maybe Malick and Grassroots Films were on the same wavelength, and it's also not impossible that Malick saw "The Human Experience," perhaps as it toured film festivals.

"Human Experience" gets off to a slowish start but not for long.

It's a very self-conscious film. But it's meant to be. And don't forget that this is the generation who has been filmed at birth, and then every minute following. They are very comfortable on camera. Too comfortable? If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is there to film it, did it really fall? The camera is their confessional and sometimes they seem like the real incidents and episodes of their lives--large and small--are there specifically for them to act in, and create a living memory of. On film. And they do it well. Very well.

I happened to know that these guys are religious. Catholic. But the film takes a phenomenological approach and starts with/sticks with "the human." I honestly can't remember if and when the "God parts" are because there's a seamlessness to it all. We are examining "the spirit" of man, as well as our existence in the physical world, but the film has a distinctly "spiritual" feel. But integrated: physical and spiritual. Am I making any sense?

The film eventually answers its own question: What does it mean to be human? What is the meaning of life? One interviewee says: "The more mature person is the one who doesn't have all the answers, but enters more deeply into the mystery."


INSIDE SCOOP: Just spoke with Joe Campo, producer of "Human Experience." He said that the guys thought THEY were making the movie, but he told them the movie was really going to be about THEM and their reactions to what they were filming, more of a behind-the-scenes story. They had to agree to being on film at all times, and they did. Sometimes the young men said: "No, no, turn the camera off!" But Joe reminded them of their deal and kept the cameras running. So, for me, it's good to know that even the camera-happy twentysomethings of today have moments that they just want to be off camera.

*(This tactic, used in other films, can feel like a ravaging of these experiences, a cheapening and desensitizing to these experiences. For me: it's too much. Go ahead and show wars and unrest to get your point across, but not the iconic, "branded" shots of 9/11, Tieneman Square, etc.)

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  1. I showed this to my youth group, who loved it. and now, it's streaming on Netflix... so you can watch it and then BUY it for yourself and anyone else you know who is human :)
    Seriously - it's a great privelege to support good artists!

  2. Wonderful review! I likewise reviwed both Tree of Life and Human Experience on my blog. I think they are wonderful compliments, a documentary and fiction essentially about the same questions and meditations. And I wholly agree - the phenomenological, spiritual, humanistic approach has made both of these films universally accessible - but they are undoubtedly both about grace, redemption, and the deep intellectual roots of our tradition!

  3. I'm very happy to have joined your blog, by the way - it's wonderful to see those in the religious life (including Father Robert Barron) devoted to evangelizing through the media and the arts. Looking forward to your future posts!

  4. Thanks, Matthew! Check out our Founder, Blessed James Alberione: www.MediaApostle.com (3 min vid). He's the reason I'm a media nun!! God bless.