Gingrich's Film Project; Brothers Helping Others

Former Speaker Highlights John Paul II in Documentary

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By Edward Pentin

ROME, JUNE 4, 2009 ( An event which took place 30 years ago this week would change the world forever.

Over just nine days, from June 2-10, 1979, John Paul II made what was probably his most historic apostolic trip, a pilgrimage back to his native Poland.

He landed in communist Warsaw on the eve of Pentecost, and went on to give 37 speeches and homilies that articulated what most Poles had felt for years: that Poland was a Catholic nation, cursed with a communist state. In doing so, he unleashed a spiritual and political revolution that would eventually free Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union from the shackles of Marxist rule.

In particular, it led to Poland’s communist government agreeing to recognize the legality of «Solidarność» – the «Solidarity» trade union movement. Together with the help of international political leaders and the Church, it would become the leading force in the collapse of the communist regime.

Now, 30 years on, a group of filmmakers led by the American politician Newt Gingrich and his wife Callista, are making a 90-minute documentary on that momentous papal pilgrimage. Called «Nine Days that Changed the World,» and set for release in the fall, the film aims to take the viewer through those pivotal events, but also to lay out the context of the visit. The program begins with John Paul’s election and goes on to make brief references to Karol Wojtyla’s life, first under Nazism, then Stalinism, and his vocation to the priesthood.

Last week, as the filmmakers visited Rome to shoot footage of St. Peter’s basilica, I spoke with Kevin Knoblock, the program’s writer, producer and director, to find out more. The idea for the documentary, he said, came after he and the Gingriches had made a recent film on Ronald Reagan. «When doing that film, we saw the three key players in the founding of the Solidarity movement,» he explained. «Reagan had a huge influence, also Thatcher, but most importantly, John Paul II.»

The crew had already filmed in various places on John Paul II’s 1979 pilgrimage including Krakow, Auschwitz, Czestochowa and Victory Square in Warsaw — the location of a huge papal Mass that attracted 250,000 people.

John Paul II’s famous motto — «Be Not Afraid» — was, Knoblock explained, not just an exhortation to be unafraid of opening one’s arms to Christ, «but also to be unafraid of the changes and challenges that will come ahead — the challenges of the Soviet regime and totalitarianism.»

He recalled how nine out of 10 Poles heard or saw the Pope speak during those nine short days, and how every effort the regime made to try to prevent the pilgrimage from taking place almost comically backfired.

In its promotional material, the filmmakers say the program will show how John Paul II «helped the Poles find their courage and reclaim their culture.» Moreover, they say the documentary aims to express the Pope’s message that contrary to the lies of Nazism and communism, «authentic human freedom is only possible through the truth of Jesus Christ.»

Such a momentous time continues to be relevant today, Knoblock said. «There’s always a need to remember what can happen under authoritarian regimes, always important to remember freedom and religious freedom, and John Paul II certainly brought that to the people of Poland.»

The documentary will eventually be available on DVD in English, Polish, Spanish, Portuguese, and French. For more information, visit:

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Joy, Sorrow, Humanity

If «Nine Days» is a film about how John Paul changed the world for the better, then «The Human Experience» aims, above all, to change the hearts of its audience.

A compelling, real-life docudrama, the film — which was shown in Rome last week — centers around real-life brothers Jeff and Cliff Azize as they travel the world in search of the answers to the burning questions: Who am I? Who is Man? Why do we search for meaning?

The Azizes already know suffering. Their mother has passed away and their father has abandoned them. So the brothers, aged 20 and 27, live at St. Francis House, a Catholic refuge in New York City. There they meet volunteer Joseph Campo, the producer of “The Human Experience,” who invites the brothers to take part in this remarkable film. The siblings — particularly Jeff, who becomes the star of the movie — are game for anything, particularly if it means visiting new parts of the world, and so they happily agree.

Yet their first stop isn’t some exotic location, but rather the destitute homeless in the Big Apple. Together with a discreet film crew, they live in cardboard houses alongside the city’s poor, unafraid to ask them profound questions about what life means to them, and what keeps them going.

They then move on to Peru, where they help orphans and disabled children, and finish helping abandoned lepers and AIDS patients in the forests of Ghana. At each location, they speak to the suffering, and those caring for them, while helping them in their work or daily lives. And in the process, you witness how the brothers — always eager to learn — come to a better understanding of suffering, and how their own hardships are put into perspective when compared to those experienced by those they encounter.

The film, as its publicity material says, “relays their awakening to the beauty of the human person and the resilience of the human spirit.”
«We didn’t make the film for us,» said Joseph Campo, whose Grassroots Films company recently made the Catholic Vote pro-life advertisements. «The purpose was to change people’s hearts and minds, but through the eyes of these young people who’ve seen both parts of life — the negative and the positive.» He pointed out that the film shows how suffering and wisdom go together, but also how God’s grace is at work throughout.

The idea for the film, Campo said, simply derived from his and his colleagues’ wish to make a very pro-life film, but without advertising it as such. «We didn’t want to mention the words abortion or pro-life, just to let it be what it is,» said Campo. «We didn’t want to take a political or even a religious view so it can appeal to everyone.» They also had no real idea how it would begin or end, but just let the film take its course.

Alongside the brothers’ journey, the movie features clips of interviews with, among others, the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, author Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete, human rights activist Dr. Alveda King, and the president and founder of the World Youth Alliance, Anna Halpine.

Reflecting on the film, which took a year to shoot, Jeff Azize said the most profound experience for him was when they stayed in Ghana. He remembered that despite facing death everyday, the people «were faith-filled,» and had a motivation to keep on living despite their deep suffering and hardship. «You have to experience it,» said Azize, now 22. «If anyone wants to experience this, do some missionary work — it’ll change your life.»

The film, which ends with a very moving real-life scene, is most effective in stirring the audience to recognize the ultimate humanity of living the Christian life, made real through acts of love from helping the poor and acts of charity, to loving one’s brothers and forgiving those who have wronged you.  

At the moment, there are no plans to make a sequel. For the program’s makers, any follow-up rests with the audience. «We pretty much hope people apply what they learn from this film to their own lives, that they make a change to their own lives,» said Azize. «That’s ‘The Human Experience II.'»

The movie’s Web site can be found at:

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