The documentary The Human Experience sure seems like a fine idea on paper, with its small group of twenty-somethings out to explore what it means to be, well. human. With their own personal life baggage to contend with they attempt to reach out to see how others live, which includes spending time as homeless people in New York City in winter, traveling to an unwanted children's home in Peru and visiting a leper colony in Ghana. Along the way there is much deep pontificating about the human spirit, delivered by an assortment of experts ranging from an activist to an actor to a theologian to a doctor to an artist. Through a quartet of "experiences" this is all meant to answer the eternal question of "who am I?", but instead all it seems to offer is vagaries wrapped in sometimes compelling visuals.
The core of the film is the Azize brothers (Clifford and Jeffery), who are meant to be our eyes/ears into this journey of introspective discovery. We are given their troubled backstory, and that is the jumping off point for the doc's general thematic message. While my cynical mind questions whether or not they actually spent a week in winter living on the street or not I did find their interviews with homeless individuals sobering. A moment of manufactured reality is also apparent during a slightly contrived and seemingly setup sequence where the Azize brothers huddle in the cold darkness beneath a storefront window that just happens to be playing It's A Wonderful Life on numerous televisions. A bit heavy-handed to be sure, and the sort of thing that casts a weird pall on the reality that we are supposed be seeing.
Things take a powerful and heartbreaking step forward during their travels to Peru to spend time at an orphanage populated by children with a number of physical disabilities. While it sounds depressing on the surface this is easily the film's finest segment, an emotionally beautiful and inspiring visit with some truly remarkable children, Their charm and resilience in the face of adversity is infectious, and while perhaps it doesn't really bring us any closer to the main thesis it does pack a very sweet and uplifting punch. If only the rest of the doc had carried this same sort of heart.
High-spirited orphans that pull on our collective heartstrings are one thing, but the filmmakers appear to have bitten off more than they can effectively chew during their travels to Ghana, where AIDS and leprosy introduce a higher level to the titular search, one that results in some awkward generalities that seem hastily constructed to fit into the film's sprawling message. The visuals at the leper colony are bleak and compelling - if not outright horrifying - but the visit seems uncomfortably gratuitous, as if this were some sort of grand dare meant to give the film some forced emotional measurement. It's yet another element where the narrative comes off as too neatly manufactured, where the tragedy of leprosy is reduced to EXTREME CLOSEUPS that seem wholly unnecessary.
I wasn't really expecting four young guys from Brooklyn to answer questions that have plagued mankind since we first walked upright, but I was expecting something a bit more centered and a bit more focused. Certainly not Docurama's finest release, but fans of the doc genre may appreciate this as a rental.
The general quality of the 1.78:1 aspect ratio transfer is somewhat disappointing, as it seems to go from one sort of extreme to another. Moments of decent image clarity are balanced by exceptionally soft edges, drifting between looking like a feature documentary or a home movie. While much of these inconsistencies can certainly be attributed to the modest budget and the on-location shooting it doesn't diminish the fluctuating appearance of the finished transfer.
Audio flavors provided in your choice of 2.0 stereo or 5.1 Dolby surround. Either will suffice, but the 5.1 gets the preferred nod for delivering the occasional spatial effect (rainfall in Ghana, for example) that adds to the overall ambience. Both tracks carry voiceover cleanly, with no sense of hiss or distortion.
Subtitle options are available in French, German, Polish, Portuguese and Spanish.
Bonus material includes a dry filmmaker commentary featuring Michael Campo (associate producer/writer), Charles Kinnane (director) and Joseph Campo (producer). It's a pretty low-key affair, and a rather uneventful adjunct to the film itself. Also included is a photo gallery, the theatrical trailer and filmmaker bios.
A nice concept gets an uneven execution, and the byproduct is a documentary that tries too hard to be deep. The segment with the Peruvian children, however, is almost worth the price of admission alone.
Rent it, if you're a documentary/Docurama fan. But keep your expectations low.