Recently, when I was watching the trailer for the latest of Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi thrillers for 15-year-olds, I wondered, with all of his talent and success, why doesn’t Spielberg produce a documentary that attempts to show how we can make the world better, instead of cranking out more pop culture fluff?
The answer came to me last night, as I was watching the documentary, “I Am”, which, although not produced by a talent as well-known as Steven Spielberg, was nonetheless master-minded by one of the movie industry’s “in crowd.” Tom Shadvac, who made such films as Ace Ventura and Bruce Almighty, was doing well by Hollywood standards. He purchased a 17,000 square foot mansion in Pasadena. He owned a private jet. He threw big, expensive parties and drove cars that are worth more than most of the homes in the outskirts of Los Angeles these days. But after a serious mountain biking accident left him in excruciating pain and misery for many months and forced him to come to terms with his mortality, he had an epiphany. I guess Steven Spielberg has never had an epiphany.
He realized that everything he thought about the world was wrong. For years he believed he was doing something good for the world by producing his genre of movie. Instead, he laments, he realized that it was all a lie. He wasn’t helping the world, he was contributing to the problem.
So he set out to make a documentary that would answer two questions: What is wrong with the world and what can we do about it?
“I Am” then departs from Shadyac’s personal story to tell a greater story: The story of humanity and the scientific revolution and its offspring, the industrial growth economy. Shadyac weaves in conversations with some of the world’s brightest thinkers, authors and spiritual teachers to present a very powerful case on why we have it all wrong when it comes to the things we believe about our world and ourselves. David Suzuki, Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Lynne McTaggart, Ray Anderson, John Francis, Coleman Barks, and Marc Ian Barasch offer their unique viewpoints on one fundamental truth that is presented for our consideration: that we are not separate from each other and everything else in the universe, but that we are all fundamentally connected. Everything we do, feel and think affects everything else.
Now, if this was just a film about a new age-y philosophy, it probably wouldn’t get much traction. What makes this film powerful are the words combined with the imagery combined with scientific proof—in some cases shown right there on camera. There’s a scene where he’s at the HearthMath institute, a neuro-cardiology research center, sitting in front of a petri dish filled with yogurt, thinking negative thoughts and affecting the yogurt culture. The most shocking information was about how world events, consciousness and random number generators are connected—something I don’t want to give away in this review because if you’ve never heard the connection, I wouldn’t want to spoil the fun of learning about it for the first time.
The movie is crafted to evoke all kinds of emotions. I found myself choking up or outright weeping during certain scenes in the movie, which were, ironically, meant to demonstrate our neurological basis for empathy and compassion. Shadyac is a master at this, as he was a master at manipulating audiences into laughter in his former career. No wonder, as the same muscles are used for laughter as for crying, as one of the authors declare in the film.
There are other lies Shadyac exposes, besides the one of humans being separate or about our world being mechanistic. There’s the lie that nature is competitive and ruled by alpha leaders. The truth is that nature, and humanity itself, is in fact cooperative and democratic by default. There’s the lie that acquiring more material wealth will make you happier, when in fact, beyond a certain level of comfort, more “stuff” does nothing to elevate your contentment.
This is a movie that is inspirational, mind-blowing, moving and ultimately, very positive. It does finally answer the questions, “What is wrong with the world and what can we do about it?” by the end. The answer doesn’t pander, isn’t cynical or obvious. The answer is at once, like the movie, simple and elegant.
Margaret Emerson is a freelance writer and ecopsychologist. She is the author of Contemplative Hiking: Along The Colorado Front Range. She lives and works in the Denver area.