“If he wakes me up today, God has something he wants me to do.” “I’m your sister, you’re my brother.” “We are all the same”that’s why we need to love everybody.”

Truisms get their name because they are, well, true. But not the sort of truth that is going to change the world. They are true and trite, or true and tepid, or true and tired”and usually not worth a second thought. Anyway, everything that could possibly be thought about them has been thought and thought and thought, as the trusty phrases grow ever limper in the wringers of greeting-card companies and charitable-giving pleas, motivational speakers and Sunday-school classes. Heaven knows the world needs no more Hallmark philosophers.

But even a truism”especially a truism”can give pause when coming from the mouth of a leper patient, a homeless woman, an HIV/AIDS victim. The physically, mentally, and spiritually battered”from the concrete jungle of Brooklyn to the mud huts of Ghana”don’t rattle off these sentiments in a spirit of blasé piety or feel-goodism. “If he wakes me up today, God has something he wants me to do,” says a man dying from AIDS, and, while his legs barely support his body, strength of spirit radiates through his eyes. It pierces the audience, which is precisely the goal of Grassroots Film’s latest documentary, The Human Experience .

“Fresh, riveting, and groundbreaking” is what the company strives for, says its founder and producer, Joseph Campo. “Grassroots Films brings the audience to places that everyone knows exists but are sometimes hard to find. Through the power of image and sound, Grassroots aims to inspire and change the way people see reality.”

In The Human Experience (to be released sometime in 2008), we’re brought to the images and sounds of the cardboard-box communities of some of New York’s homeless, to a home for disabled and abused children in Peru, to a leper colony in Africa”places that everyone knows exist, but few will ever encounter closely and personally.

Yes, National Geographic does all that, too, no doubt with far more glitz and a far higher budget. But Grassroots aims at something smaller on the surface yet somehow bigger beneath: Its producers take us to striking and shocking locales, but we do not go there as spectators. They want us to walk in the shoes of our neighbors”or, in the case of this film, to walk with those who have no shoes for their feet . . . or no feet for their shoes. Human minds, human hearts, human experiences: These are the “places that everyone knows exist, but are sometimes hard to find.”

The premise is not particularly original. Two brothers, Jeff and Clifford Azize, decide to explore the biggest and most basic questions” Who am I and why am I here? What is man and what is life? ”by traveling the world. “There are human beings in Peru, in New York City,” Clifford explains to fellow volunteers at the children’s home near Lima. “Wherever we go, we try to find out what life is through their experiences.”

These experiences can be heartwarming and even humorous. There are shots of the mighty, tumbling waves off the coast of Peru, as the Azize brothers venture to South America with “Surf for the Cause,” a group of large-hearted surfing fanatics dedicated to seeking out the best ocean waves and then giving back to the coastland community. At the Children’s Home near Lima, they meet determined Victor, who grasps his spoon between his toes because his only limb is a leg. Then there is little Angela; her father didn’t want her, we learn, and he tried several times to kill her. But she is so smiley and radiant that I watched several minutes of footage before realizing that she is missing part of one leg.

Joyous too are many of the men camping under the stars”or streetlights”in New York City during the coldest week of the year. “I should have been gone a long time ago, shot or run over or in prison,” says one homeless man. “But God has something he wants me to do.” And as his suave curbside neighbor, sporting a jaunty stocking cap, remarks: “So I’m homeless and I’m happy because a lot of people talk to me. Girls talk to me, old ladies talk to me!”

Then there are glimpses of grotesque suffering and nearly unbearable anguish: a man riddled with leprosy, flies feeding off the rotting flesh of his rag-wrapped feet. “We are happy about the community,” he tells Jeff and Clifford, struggling to explain the inexplicable: the problem of, and answer to, pain. True, in the leper colony there are others who understand and share his suffering, but that isn’t enough. He, in return, is able to understand them, to give them strength by returning their compassion. And he is able to look on the healthy faces of Jeff and Clifford without resentment, but with love: “We are all the same. You are my brother.”

The dialogue trips and stumbles, at times, but there’s something very real about that. The Azize brothers are not actors, visiting exotic places for a nice and moving show. They are residents of St. Francis House for young men in Brooklyn, founded in 1967 by Fr. Benedict Groeschel, C.F.R. Now the home is operated by Joseph Campo, who trains many of the residents in film technology while drawing from their firsthand knowledge of street life and the MTV generation. “Some call it a halfway house or a group home,” says Jeff. “We just call it home.”

The residents”so-called throwaway children”come from broken and abusive families, and most say that they would be on the streets, in prison, or dead were it not for this second chance. “I was a surprise baby,” Jeff explains, groping for words. “I wasn’t intended, you know, I wasn’t planned.” And so when he encounters the unquestioning fellowship of the New York homeless, the joyful resilience of the abused Peruvian children, the familial love of the African leper colony, the experience is haunting, and hauntingly beautiful. Paradoxically, the people who have the least give the most. What they give is not ideas and ideals, but living answers to what it means to be human.

Some of the most profound truths don’t fit very well in words, whether coming from an unschooled alcoholic on the streets or a trained “expert” in the academy. “Life is worth living,” says a Stanford neuroscientist, “because it just is.” It is about other people, it is about the love of family and community, it is about sharing human existence. As Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete of Communion and Liberation puts it: “I do not ask the question What is the meaning of life? Instead I ask, Who are you? ” Basic questions, perhaps, with clichéd half-answers. But as Fr. Richard John Neuhaus says in his commentary in the film: “The mature person is not the one who has all the questions settled. No”the mature person is the one who enters ever more deeply, ever farther, farther, into the mystery, into the wonder . . . into the new, unrepeatable, unprecedented reality of a human life.”

“If he wakes me up today, God has something he wants me to do.” It’s a line that’s easy to dismiss, because we’ve heard it so often. But, The Human Experience reminds, it is no less true for being a truism.

Amanda Shaw is a junior fellow at First Things .

References The Human Experience Trailer Grassroots Films St. Francis House

Articles by Amanda Shaw

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