Catholic filmmaker tells stories of faith and the heart

| Jessica Weinberger | April 25, 2018 | 0 Comments
Catholic filmmaker Cliff Azize

Cliff Azize of All Saints in Lakeville stands in the basement studio of his home in Lakeville, where he does video production and editing. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

At the St. Francis House in Brooklyn, New York, Cliff Azize learned an important lesson from the Franciscan Friars of Renewal who had opened their doors to young men like him who needed a second chance at life.

“The friars drilled into us that everyone has at least one talent to offer this world,” recalled Azize, 38.

That simple affirmation was enough to convince a dozen residents in 2001 to pick up a VHS hand-held video camera and capture life at the home to raise awareness and financial support for the nonprofit’s mission of providing a safe place and guidance to young men out of options.

Since that first film, Azize has seen international success as a documentary filmmaker with widely recognized films like “The Human Experience” and “Outcasts.” Now a parishioner of All Saints in Lakeville, Azize says his Catholic faith underscores many of his story lines, and he frequently works with Catholic organizations to share their stories, all with the intention of affecting the human heart.

“I find so much meaning in these projects,” Azize said. “With making projects for the Church, I feel like there’s no better purpose for me in life.”

Azize prays in the eucharstic adoration chapel at All Saints in Lakeville. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

A glimmer of faith in the darkness

Azize’s overt New York accent conveys he is from Queens, but what’s not apparent is that he grew up with an alcoholic father, his mother and two brothers in a one-bedroom apartment. It was a rough and unstable home life, wrought with physical abuse, but he’s quick to say that his story was no different from anyone else’s in his neighborhood. Drugs, alcohol and robbery became his outlet.

They didn’t attend church as a family, yet his parents made him attend Catholic parish-based religious education classes. It was at a weekend Youth 2000 confirmation retreat that he remembers encountering Christ — and the Franciscan Friars — for the first time at age 14 following eucharistic adoration.

“That’s really where my faith started to grow,” he said. “Something happened, and I can’t explain what it was, but I know I wanted more of it.”

Soon after the retreat, Azize ran away from home, but he remembered a conversation with one of the Friars at the retreat, encouraging him to call if he ever needed help. That’s when he found himse lf at the St. Francis House for the first time. After a year of living in the home,he drifted back into his old toxic environment, only to find himself worse off at age 21. He remembered how he felt living at the St. Francis House, and the staff welcomed him back with open arms.

Azize was able to complete his GED shortly before he helped produce the organization’s first film. Buoyed by the success, a group of four residents decided to form a filmmaking company in 2006.

“Father Glenn Sudano [one of the order’s founders] called the company ‘Grassroots’ because it was a grassroots effort, where we dropped the seeds and watched them grow,” Azize said.

Grassroots Films quickly grew with every project and the group’s expanding skill set, including Azize’s expertise in directing, producing and editing. He described Grassroots’ style as gritty and real, recalling their experience filming a young boy with no arms who used one leg to eat and to draw.

“These are documentaries, not a storyboard we’re filming one day. We have to be there in the moment,” he said. “We’re trying to pitch the hard truth underhand and have people experience this world that exists outside of our own.”

One of Azize’s earliest projects with Grassroots Films is one with the largest reach. Commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Fishers of Men” serves as a powerful film on the vocation to the priesthood. According to Grassroots Films, eight out of 10 seminarians in the United States own a copy of the film.

Father Marcus Milless, a chaplain at Hennepin County Medical Center and associate pastor of Holy Family in St. Louis Park, remembers seeing “Fishers of Men” as a college freshman visiting St. John Vianney College Seminary in 2006, the same year the film was released. Years later as associate pastor at All Saints, Father Milless connected with Azize after Mass and learned about his latest film, “Outcasts.”

Released in 2016, the documentary invites viewers to prisons in Central America, dark city streets of New York and rough neighborhoods in Ireland for a view into the lives of society’s outcasts. Father Milless described the film as raw but inspiring, and he arranged a screening at All Saints last June.

“When watching his films, you can tell he’s not afraid to look away from suffering humanity, but rather embrace it through his art and call others to do the same in faith,” Father Milless said of Azize. “His films inspire one to deeper practice of the corporal works of mercy.”

Global reach

Azize’s quest to show life as it happens has taken him all over the world. When filming one of their most well-known documentaries, “The Human Experience” in 2008, he traveled with his brother, Jeffrey, and a small crew to more than 30 countries to ask simple yet profound questions about the meaning of life.

Jeffrey Azize, 31, now a writer and producer for Kinnane Brothers, an improv comedy company in Rhode Island, said that meaningful storytelling aligns with Jesus’ own use of analogies and parables to create a greater understanding of who he is and who his Father’s creations are as human beings. Venturing into the unknown with his brother and a camera crew was often daunting, but the trust the pair have in each other is unparalleled, Jeffrey said.

“Sharing a vision with someone can be difficult, but having Cliff, my brother, be on the same page throughout the process of making a film is always a huge success in the end,” he said.

Charles Kinnane, 34, one of the founding members of Grassroots Films, also traveled with the group to shoot “The Human Experience,” along with the 2013 documentary, “Child 31,” which features the Scottish charity Mary’s Meals’ work to provide one meal a day to chronically hungry children.

He said that Cliff brings “the soul” to each project with an innate sense of what’s authentic and a gift of empathy that stems from his trials early in life.

“For a lot of the projects we worked on, there’s no greater gift than being able to empathize to the people we’re telling their stories,” Kinnane said.

Now working with Jeffrey at Kinnane Films as a director, he admires their ability to share meaningful stories without a hidden agenda that so often plagues Hollywood films.

“They really strive to just tell authentic stories with no strings attached,” Kinnane said. “When shared with other people, there’s the common acknowledgment that there’s an intangible faith aspect to life that you can’t always put your finger on.”

Those faith elements stem from Azize’s devotion to Mary and other elements of his faith life, like praying novenas or attending a silent retreat. He also seeks inspiration from figures like St. Teresa of Kolkata, whose famous quote about changing the world by loving your family first inspired a subplot in his film “Outcasts.”

The universal themes and storylines make Azize’s films appropriate for anyone, but when editing, he pays special attention to the needs of fallen-away Catholics or people who, he says, are on the fence in terms of faith. It’s those viewers who need to see the faith explained and lived out on the screen, in addition to “on-fire” Catholics.

“I want them to be for anyone and everyone who will lend an ear or an eye,” Azize said.

From left, Azize poses for a photo with his children, Rocco and Eloise, and his wife, Chelsey. Courtesy Cliff Azize

‘Superman’ in the suburbs

When not on the road, Azize is at home in Lakeville, networking and conceptualizing future projects. But even more important, he’s dubbed “Superman” by his wife, Chelsey, 33, as he cares full time for their two children, Eloise, 4, and Rocco, 2, while she works as a fashion designer. The couple met on a kickball team in Brooklyn and moved to Chelsey’s hometown of Lakeville six months after their June 2012 wedding.

One of the reasons Chelsey fell in love with Cliff was because of his work, where his view of humanity and genuine love for people and life shines through. She admires how faith is the cornerstone of his work and how he uses imagery, music and unifying content to bring people closer to the Church and to God.

“Since I was raised Lutheran, I had a lot of questions regarding the Catholic faith that were answered through his films, and the relationships he made through his work,” Chelsey said. “Witnessing his positive experience with the faith through film has definitely shaped our family for the better.”

Azize’s next adventure is not tied to any one project or storyline — he’s in the process of starting his own company, Azize Films ( Looking for talent locally and remotely, he aims to have as many irons in the fire as possible. As an experienced filmmaker, he feels a sense of urgency to capitalize on the limitless story opportunities, especially on social media. But he doesn’t want to lose touch with the people and stories yet to be told right in front of him.

“There are so many interesting people we sit next to at church each week who we don’t know much about,” Azize said. “But there’s beautiful stories there. That’s the kind of approach I want to take.”

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