If you haven’t seen “I AM,” a documentary by Tom Shadyac — the same guy behind the Jim Carrey comedies “Bruce Almighty,” “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” and “Liar, Liar,” — trust me, it’s some of the best film-watching time you’ll ever invest.
“I AM” (www.iamthedoc.com) is a stark departure from Shadyac’s famous comedies. Though still imbued with good humor and self-deprecation, this film digs deep. It challenges you to think about not just who you are … but what you are and how you exist in relation to other people, animals, plants, all living things, and um, stay with me here, even the air you breathe in through your nostrils. High-falutin’ concepts but Shadyac succeeds in keeping the film grounded as he asks two questions: What’s wrong with our world? and What can we do to make it better?
Questions that might sound banal from overuse, but under Shadyac’s relaxed direction and participation in the film, the questions — and the answers the film gives — take on an almost urgent resonance and relevance. Thought-provoking insights come from big thinkers of all walks of science, philosophy, faith and education; familiar names like Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn and Archbishop Desmond Tutu; and people whose names you might not know (I didn’t): like Lynne McTaggart, Coleman Barks and Marc Ian Barasch.
The film left me feeling impressed by the profound thinking these people have done and humbled by our infinitely majestic and incredibly brilliant planet, where animals and plants, own to the smallest living organism, intuitively communicate, operate, and achieve life with a collaborative spirit not a competitive one. The film debunks what we commonly believe is true about human nature: that humans are innately competitive and that survival (and success) goes only to the fittest — i.e., the award-winners, the richest, the most educated, the strongest, the most beautiful, and in many cases, the most ruthless. The film suggests that the win-at-all-costs, dog-eat-dog mentality exhibited by everyone from Little League parents to Wall Street warriors, is something that is culturally beat into us — it’s not how we’re born to be.
Shadyac questions our contemporary culture’s obsession with accumulating more things, clothes, houses and wealth than we can possibly need as individuals. One of the most challenging moments of the film comes when he juxtaposes images of great wealth next to images of great poverty and asks the question: Isn’t this casual, yet brutal, dichotomy the very definition of insanity?
“I AM” takes the position that we are all of each other, deeply connected as humans, and that if even one of us is poor and suffering then no one should be rich and luxuriating. John Donne wrote, “every man is a piece of the continent”; Thoreau asked, “What is the use of a house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?” Gandhi said, “Live simply so that others may simply live.”
And Albert Einstein, commenting on the commonly-held, human delusion that we are all separate individuals who are not all equal, said, “This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty … . We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if humanity is to survive.”
If you want to learn one or two new ways of thinking — watch “I AM.” It just might change who you are.