Michael Campo, writer of the film THE HUMAN EXPERIENCE, and Jeffrey Azize, one of the brothers who traveled the world in this film to live in suffering communities, speak about the experience of creating the film and what was observed about hope, love, faith and family. THE HUMAN EXPERIENCE is about a band of brothers who set off on a journey, asking the questions: Why are we here? What is the purpose of it all? Have we forgotten to be human? The journey puts the brothers near to the experience of New York’s homeless, of disabled Peruvian orphans and of lepers in Ghana. It’s a story of rediscovering hope and realizing that we aren’t all that different from one another. Enjoy the podcast.
MC: Alright, Jeff, I’m glad that we have an opportunity to speak about this stuff because it’s been quite the journey, wouldn’t you agree?
JA: Yeah, I can’t believe we’re interviewing ourselves, it’s pretty funny, it’s the first time ever.
MC: I’m going to basically be asking you some questions that we’ve heard from a lot of different people all over the world [while] showing this film and I think it will be great for us to just sit down and really just talk, like we always do, about this stuff, ‘cause it’s some pretty intense issues, you know?
MC: So, basically, THE HUMAN EXPERIENCE is a film where you and your brother Cliff and two other guys—Matthew and myself—go on this journey. And I think one of the main questions here that people want to know is, out of all of the experiences, which one was your favorite?
JA: You know, Mike, that we definitely get that question a lot. It’s crazy, it’s kind of like saying, “Who do you love more: your mother or your father?” and it’s a tough question, you know? If you live with both your parents in the household and you have a great relationship with both of them, it’s difficult to say, which one of your sisters or your brothers is your favorite. We all love them differently and uniquely and individually. And I have to say that each experience held its own uniqueness and there’s many different forms of love and each experience that I’ve been through with Cliff has been so distinguished and so unique and original. Being with the homeless people in New York City was just awesome, to experience the amount of wisdom that these people had and the tremendous amount of hope that they have to continue to live each day, day by day, focusing on the moments, which, when we’re comfortable in our lives, really, we forget to seize the moments, you know, those small gems in our everyday lives. And, I have to honestly say that just being with the kids in Peru, the orphans [who have] a tremendous amount of joy and love, that childlike love, was really awesome to experience that. And that life is simple and that meeting the people in Ghana, Africa was just great. Each experience definitely held its own and I definitely loved every single one of them differently and uniquely.
MC: No, I definitely have to agree with you. The experiences in the film are extremely unique, you know, and there pretty ballsy too—just going out and living with these people, people who are suffering: it’s not the easiest thing to do. But, you know, out of all three experiences that you mentioned, what would you say was the most positive thing you learned from the whole process?
JA: Wow. Just meeting these people we met along the way—the homeless people, the people struggling with AIDs and leprosy, and the kids—getting to know who they are and where they came from was the greatest thing. And, yeah, [there were] beautiful landscapes and stuff but the people were number one. The most positive thing that I learned is like: it was crazy, it was after a monsoon in Africa, and, Mike, you probably remember, we just started dancing in the rain when that huge rainstorm was coming—
MC: —yes, it was the rain dance; we were doing the Ghanaian rain dance—
JA: Yeah, and it was perfect cause it cooled us off, you know, just hanging out and just enjoying the moment of being in Africa in the middle of the night. And there we all were sitting down and saying, “How does all of this relate?” you know, “How does the man in the streets of New York City relate to the person in Ghana, Africa?” And we realized that these four elements kept reoccurring throughout our journeys, and that was: hope, love, faith and family. Those were, like, the four elements that I’ve learned from these people that really was the common thread throughout all of them. And it didn’t matter whether you were homeless on the streets of New York City, the kid suffering in Peru, or the people in Ghana, Africa—they all had the same values. It was hope, love, faith and family. And that was a tremendous amount of wisdom right there that I’d learned and definitely Cliff learned, and we were all there saying, “This is it, this is the common thread, this is the spine of the whole film.”
MC: Yeah, I’d have to agree with you that these people that we met, a lot of them weren’t in ideal situations in life, some of these people were suffering with some real issues, but the tremendous amount of hope that these people displayed I think was absolutely stunning and a great example to all of us.
JA: Totally, I mean, hey, you’re not just born on the streets of New York City, you end up there. And to sit down and take your time and actually get to know a homeless person—that’s what I do, you know, if I see a homeless guy on the streets, I’ll invite him to Dunkin’ Donuts, McDonalds, whatever it is, Burger King, a fast food place, and just sit down and talk with them and say “Hey, what’s your name? Where’d you come from? Where did you grow up? You have any brothers or sisters?” and you kind of take them out of that element that they’re homeless and just treat them like a person, with dignity and respect. And that’s crazy, you know, to see these people’s situations.
MC: It’s amazing because I think a lot of people everywhere in the world, especially if you live in big cities, where you’re accustomed to seeing homeless people all the time: homeless people just become a part of the scenery; we just walk by them every single day. I think that after going through these experiences and actually living that—it’s pretty humbling, wouldn’t you say so?
JA: …especially when Chuck Kinnane, our director, when he said, “Okay, Jeff, I wanna get you begging for food,” and he miked me up with a wireless mike and he was filming from a block down and there I was, going into the stores, begging for food. And I was like…I honestly have to say, Mike, that was extremely humbling for me, and it was definitely humiliating, I felt it.
MC: Nobody wants to beg for food, you know? And I think that a lot of people that have seen the film are like, “Ah, cool idea, let’s go out and live homeless.” But I think by, like, Day 2 when you’re actually in the experience and you’re really hungry and totally now dependent on other people’s generosity for whether you eat or not that day, I think that really puts things into perspective.
JA: Totally, I have to agree, especially after you personally had stripped us of our cell phones and told us that we could only take a certain amount of clothing with us—
MC: [laughs] we had to make it as authentic as possible, right?
JA: Totally, definitely.
MC: Yeah, you know what, I mean, and from the other side of it, going out there with a very, very small crew, I mean, we couldn’t have the whole crew from Grassroots Films out there filming, so, to have you and your brother on the camera and then two guys off the camera filming you guys I think was an extremely important part of the whole process because that was what kept the whole experience, I think, intimate and kept it real and focused on really living the experience.
JA: Yeah, definitely. We had each other and, if one of us was to fall, we always had, like, 10 guys. But, Mike, I got a question for you, it’s your turn now, spotlight reversed on you. Tell me something, there [were] definitely a lot of emotions in the film, and I just wanted to know, that, for you personally, what was the most emotional part for you? And I know you weren’t there for the homeless part, you weren’t there also in Peru, but you saw the footage in the editing room and you were there helping Chuck, cutting it up and making it look great. But you were there in Africa and Africa was a huge part of the film and a lot of people remember Africa distinctly. So, being that you were a part of it and experienced the leper colony and the AIDS epidemic, tell us what was really emotional for you.
MC: I’d have to say there were two parts there, well, both parts. Speaking to people who are suffering with AIDS and who are dying, I’ve never really gotten that close to the disease before in my life, at least to the best of my knowledge, you know? I mean, now, when I think about AIDS or HIV, you know, I have a face to put to it. And that face is the people that we met in Ghana, especially Calvin. Calvin’s a young child who contracted the disease from his mother, who didn’t know that she had it. And it was pretty emotional to sit down and speak with these people about the meaning of life—people who were really suffering and very close to death—especially in Ghana because they don’t have a lot of the resources that we have in an industrialized country. You know, ask somebody who’s dying, “what’s the meaning of life?” And I think the most emotional part for me was really when Calvin’s mother took Calvin and put him in my arms for the first time. I mean, that was probably the most emotional part of the whole experience—I really can’t explain how I felt, I mean, it was crazy. I had a variety of different emotions that ran through—
JA: Can you tell us, do you remember the first thing that went through your mind when you actually felt the weight of Calvin in your arms?
MC: Yeah, man! First thing I thought was, “No, no, no, don’t do it, don’t put him in my arms!” because I don’t know, I was afraid I was gonna drop him or something like that.
JA: He was pretty fragile too, right?
MC: Yeah, I mean, when she put him in my arms, you know, and he was 2 years old, he felt like he was maybe 8 months, I mean, he felt so light and malnourished and stuff, you know, it was really hard to sit there and hold him in my arms, it was tough, you know?
JA: Is there any way you can go into details about the leper colony? Like, it wasn’t in the film, but remember when they first sat us down in front of all 250 lepers to welcome us?
MC: [laughs] Yeah, yeah, when they first sat us down, you know, and we were over here in this leper colony, you know, it was almost like we were being presented to them and they had to, like, accept us. And they were all lined up, you had the chiefs over here and the guys over here and the women over here and the children over there and everyone was kind of separated but at the same time there was an overwhelming sense of unity amongst them, they were incredible. But I think one of the most emotional parts of the whole experience was meeting the lepers in the colony. When I had the opportunity to speak to this one guy, who really broke it down for me, he really just broke it all down, he just basically told me that, “You and me are brothers and this is the reason that we need to love everybody.” And, you know, I think all of us growing up heard that all the time, you know, “We’re all brothers and sisters,” but to actually hear it from him was different, there was something different about it that really just spoke to my heart and my soul, you know? And it went in deep when he said “You are my brother, we are both the same and this is why we need to love everybody,” it was deep, man, it was incredible. And I just want to be honestly real with you, I had no idea leper colonies still existed. I thought it was a biblical thing, in my [stupidity] I thought maybe Jesus had healed them all. I had no idea that these places actually existed. And to actually be in this colony, you know, totally uneducated about the disease, not knowing if we can get it or what the deal was, it was tough.
JA: Yeah, it was, it really was incredible, I mean, to see these people with so little they had, they always made it the best, to work with what they had, and to use it to the fullest of its potential. Wouldn’t you say?
MC: That’s what was amazing about the whole entire film THE HUMAN EXPERIENCE. I mean, to actually meet these people who were suffering and really had a reason to complain about the cards they’d been dealt, and have the exact opposite response—of a great hope that things would get better eventually, and a great love of humanity and one another. I think that’s one of the best examples of how we should all be. You know, I think there’s so much we can learn from people who are suffering.
JA: Yeah, totally.
MC: But, skipping around here, without giving away the total ending of the film…THE HUMAN EXPERIENCE is a tremendous journey, you know, we start homeless on the streets of New York City, we travel to Lima, Peru and then we travel to Ghana, Africa. And, without giving away the ending of the film (because there is a surprise ending), there’s a moment that takes place in the film of forgiveness. And, I guess, as part of the whole human experience, Jeff, in your eyes, how important is it to forgive people and to be forgiven?
JA: Forgiveness is huge, I think, at some point in our lives, we all need to forgive somebody that might have hurt us along the way in life, or we ourselves may need to be forgiven for hurting someone else’s life. And forgiveness is not an easy thing, there are just so many things involved—there are a lot of internal struggles with that person that may have offended you or you offended them and it’s pretty intense. All I have to say is that, with forgiveness, a lot of people that I’ve experienced after traveling the world and showing this film in so many different countries and hearing all these young people—high school students and college students—hearing them speak about the topic, the subject of forgiveness, I always let them know that forgiveness has to really come from the heart and has to have no other motivation. Forgiveness has to come out of love, that’s the only way for it to be truly authentic. And so forgiveness can also be a sign of vulnerability.
MC: I think that’s the scariest part about it sometimes.
JA: Yeah, it’s that we become vulnerable. You know, both people become vulnerable, wherever it takes place.
MC: Right, right.
JA: There’s a vulnerability that can be in the way of things and therefore prevent that person from [being able to] forgive. But that’s where true strength comes from; I think that definitely springs up from. Jack Nicholson said one time that you have to not be afraid to show your vulnerability. And that’s totally true, you know. To be able to express your vulnerability, to show it, is really a sign of strength, it’s not a sense of weakness, where that’s how it’s been portrayed. In our weaknesses, strength can prosper…and forgiveness is a sense of freedom. Once you forgive somebody, there’s a tremendous amount of weight that’s definitely lifted off someone’s shoulders for sure. Not only do you become free, but that other person becomes free and there’s a sense of accomplishment. And therefore, I can continue to go about life and this weight is not holding me back from trying to make this jump that’s pretty high up—
MC: —that seems impossible—
JA: Yeah, that seems impossible with the weight, you know, because it’s weighing you down. But once you cut that off, man, there’s a sense of freedom, you know, you can definitely open up your wings and fly.
MC: Yeah, you can grow to your greatest potential.
JA: Exactly and I feel totally that when you don’t forgive somebody, that when you hold this grudge against somebody, it totally eats you up. It just becomes moldy and becomes sour and you start decaying in this little part of your heart and it starts spreading like a virus, you know, like cancer, emotionally.
MC: And I think one of the coolest things, we’ve shown this film all over the world now to many different people of all different ages. And I think hearing from young people and old people alike who are struggling with this particular topic of forgiveness; I think it’s monumental to speak about it. I think THE HUMAN EXPERIENCE is a great outlet that just kind of opens up the door. It’s a true story, it’s a real story, you know, and we’re not talking about forgiving people for minor things, we’re talking about true forgiveness—people who have really been hurt by others and have chosen to say, “You know what, I’m not going to hold this grudge anymore, I’m going to pick up and move on with my life.” I guess the question is now, since you’ve mentioned that we’ve shown the film all over the world, how has the response been from people?
JA: The response all over the world has been amazing. It really has been this whole movement of, like, love and hope and the desire to do something great—especially in young people. And I’m young too, you know, I’m only 24 years old. [Laughs]
MC: [laughs] I’m still young—
JA: —Yeah, you’re still young; I’ll give you that—
MC: —I’m getting there but I’m still young—
JA: You’re still under the 30-mark. So, anyway, the response from young people, you know, my age—little older, little younger, in high school, college students, and even in junior high schools—there’s been a tremendous amount of people just rising up to the occasion and saying, “You know what, something needs to get done.” After they see this film, they become so inspired, so moved, that they take the responsibility on themselves and go out there and make the world a better place by going to a third world country or, even, visiting Dr. Tony’s place in Peru, which is a real orphanage and anybody is more than welcome to go there, in Lima, Peru, knock on the door and help do some volunteer work. So it’s amazing to hear back from all these people, you know, especially on Facebook—I get tons of emails from people on Facebook, we get personal emails through our website. And just people constantly in search and constantly asking us, like, “Hey, what can we do? How do we help out?” or, “Check out the photos I just took while being in Peru, after I saw the film.” And so these people become so motivated in life—
MC: You know it’s almost like, when you see students especially starting the film, in a high school or at a university, it doesn’t matter what country we’re in, but when you see students watching this film and they start off in the beginning, by the time they reach the end of the film it’s almost like a transformation has taken place.
JA: Yeah, a 90-minute transformation.
MC: [Laughs] A 90-minute transformation, which, I really can’t explain because it’s phenomenal just to witness it, the audience really connects and I think it really just comes down to—Jeff, and you’ve heard me say this before but it really comes down to—people want to make a difference. People want to make the world a better place. I think when we’re all little kids we have this voice inside of us that’s just screaming, you know that “I want to make the world a better place, I want to do something great for humanity.”
JA: I had that voice [laughs].
MC: Yeah, I think we all do.
JA: I still do, I hope.
MC: But something happens, sometimes, in some people’s lives, as we get older and that voice seems to get quieter and quieter and then sometimes, you know, we wind up not being the person we thought we wanted to be when we were younger, or the person we thought we were going to be. But I think what’s unique about audiences who see the film THE HUMAN EXPERIENCE… they see the film, they have an opportunity to speak with us, most of the time, afterwards and that voice inside is alive and it’s loud! And people need to know that they are important and that each one of us is called to make a difference in the world.
JA: I think so many people are hungry for truth, you know. People want to be fed the truth and when I heard that voice [when I was] younger, “I wanna do something big,” I remember hearing that voice, I remember feeling that desire and I stuck with Grassroots Films because I believed that Grassroots Films was able to fulfill that in my heart, that I was going to be able to do something big. And I knew, as we did it together, you know, because we were a family first—as you know, we were a family first before we became a film company at the St. Francis House—
MC: And people who see the film will learn a little bit more about, well, they’ll learn a lot about, our personal lives, they’ll learn a little bit about how the film company was started and stuff, in the beginning. But, you know, I have to say that, as filmmakers, in going through this experience, I think the greatest reward that we could ever get from people is really seeing people—like you said earlier—get up and take it upon themselves to want to make the world a better place.
JA: I totally agree and that’s like the most beautiful thing because, you know, they say if you can get a young person’s attention, to really inspire them to do something like that, I mean, I’ve gotten so many emails on facebook, college students saying, “I changed my major,” you know, to do something else. Or a young high school girl in Long Island, wonderful girl, she was 15 years old and she was able to convince her faculty that she wanted the school to have it as part of the curriculum to go out and do some third world traveling, to experience being with poor people and to help them out on a greater level—and she’s only 15 years old! And hearing these stories—and the thing is you don’t necessarily have to do great, big things—
MC: —You don’t have to travel across the world to make a difference—
JA: No, not at all. And it’s like: that young girl from Long Island, I mean, she did it within her own schools. You know, she’s made a difference in her own community. And that’s what matters most—that you don’t have to go in the world and really make a huge difference or huge change, or, try to do one big, great thing, you know? It doesn’t happen like that. An artist doesn’t take a paintbrush and touch the canvas once and get a masterpiece, you know? You have to start off real small. You have to start off with the fingernails and the wrinkles and the whole nine, you know, and the complexion, everything. And so the only way to accomplish this is to do really small acts of love, small acts of kindness, each day, you know?
MC: I hear you say this all the time: “It’s the little wheels that make the big wheels move.” And sometimes we don’t realize how significant we, as little wheels, may be.
Mc: Alright, so let me ask you another question here. Out of all the people that you met through the experiences, have you had a lot of contact with them afterwards?
JA: I would have to say that it’s pretty tough to have an open line of communication with these people, especially the people in Africa because they’re in this secluded area, there in there in the jungles, what can I say? You take a really long dirt road and you going through trees and that’s pretty much it. You’re really driving through the jungle and they don’t have, like, the phone or internet, you now? Most of that is really in the main city of Ghana, which is Accra.
MC: Accra, the capital.
JA: From Peru, Dr. Tony called Joe Camp—the executive producer of grassroots film—called him up several months ago and was wondering what was going on here in the United States because he was getting tons of people knocking on his door, saying “Hey, we’re here to help you, we saw a film in the United States and we were inspired by your story on how you gave up your life to help these kids, and we want to help you .” And so they went in there—carpenters, masonry workers, plumbers—and pretty much renovated the whole place. And it’s really incredible to hear that, especially coming from Dr. Tony, you know, you hear right from the horse’s mouth who’s in Peru and he’s doing really great actually and you get to meet Angela and Victor in the film, who pretty much are still there today and they pretty much run the whole orphanage.
MC: [Laughs] phenomenal kids. I think you say it best when you say that they’re like a young married couple.
JA: [Laughs] they really are.
MC: They just run the whole show.
JA: They really are, they’re like a young married couple, exactly. And kids are always being brought to the home for medical assistance and kids are being adopted from the home to families that aren’t able to have children themselves but they adopt, which is a beautiful option to have, you know? Because there are a lot of kids out there that need a home, you know, and Dr. Tony is able to help these families have kids, you know, in this way. And it’s just a beautiful thing.
So there’s a lot of people you encountered on your journey in suffering but they did display, like, a huge amount of hope. Can you give details on that? Just encountering people on the journey who are suffering that do display this tremendous amount of hope, faith, love and family.
MC: Again, I would say, you and I [are] not experts on anything.
MC: Just talking from experiences. A lot of people that we met, whether the homeless experience or at the orphanage in Peru or, you know, people suffering with a disease in Ghana, Africa, one thing these people displayed that I think is a great example for everyone is a tremendous amount of hope. I mean, these people, who were really suffering and had real problems, really had a beautiful hope each day of their life that things were going to get better. It was amazing to witness that firsthand. I mean, I spoke with a guy who’s suffering, he didn’t know whether he was going to wake up tomorrow and he thought about this every single day of his life and one of the things he said to me was that, “You know what, if God allows me to wake up tomorrow, then it’s because there’s a purpose for my life. He wants me to do something that day.” And I thought that was incredible, to actually hear that from a man who’s facing death every single day. He wasn’t unsure about his purpose in life, he wasn’t distracted by some of the things that we may seem distracted about. I mean, he understood that his life—no matter how short or long it was going to be—had meaning and had purpose and I’m thankful that he was able to share that with us and we were able to include part of his story in the film, because, you know, whether he’s passed away by now or not, his story lives on forever in this film. And I hope that it touches millions of people.
Well I just want to say many thanks to everyone joining us today to talk about the film THE HUMAN EXPERIENCE, which is now available from Docurama Films on DVD, Digitally and On Demand. Jeff, it’s been a pleasure.
JA: Yeah, definitely, Mike, it’s pretty unique to be able to do this with you. It’s the first time, let’s hope it’s not the first and last though.
MC: [Laughs] so thank you very much to everyone out there that’s listening: THE HUMAN EXPERIENCE, thank you.