As the world is transfixed by remarkable change in the Middle East, America's popcorn culture distracts us with another Nicholas Cage road rage movie and the next around-the-clock celebrity train wreck (aka, the Charlie Sheen Show).
Into this void steps Tom Shadyac, Hollywood blockbuster director (Bruce Almighty, The Nutty Professor, Ace Ventura) with his self-financed documentary I Am (opening in LA and NY the next two weekends). The film is a universe away from the pet detective and fat man suit that Shadyac popularized.
I Am is a sure-fire conversation starter about our cultural "mental illness" and the hopeful possibilities for a global mind shift towards greater compassion and human connection.
Shadyac is a refugee from the film industry's lifestyle of conspicuous consumption. He ditched his lonely 17,000 foot Xanadu estate in Pasadena for a modest mobile home in north Malibu. In the midst of downsizing, he suffered a bike accident in 2007 that triggered Post Concussion Syndrome, resulting in paralyzing depression (from which he ultimately recovered).
I Am is the result of Shadyac's rethinking of his priorities and his journey to probe and provoke conversation around two essential questions: what's wrong with our world and what can we all do about it?
To answer these questions, Shadyac hit the road with a four member film crew to converse with a thoughtful mix of philosophers, academics, scientists and spiritual leaders -- such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn. Talk show host Thom Hartmann, writer Marc Ian Barash and U.C. Berkeley psychology professor Dacher Keltner stand out as especially fresh and compelling voices.
Shadyac artfully weaves together contributions from this chorus of thinkers and doers to lift up ancient wisdom, critical lessons from the natural world, and insights from new human sciences about how we can live better together.
I Am provides an emotional thought fest that inspires hope for an evolutionary shift. It celebrates the better angels of human nature by spotlighting the deep reservoir of empathy that resides within each of us to act as our brother's keeper.
The film visually puts audiences through a test to prove the point. Sights and sounds of animal violence and human discord are contrasted with scenes of compassion and harmony. During both screenings I attended, the emotional shift within the theater was palatable.
I Am's examination of the long running "greed is good" ethos is timely as Wall Street's restoration kicks into high gear with new bulging profits (and socialized losses). As scientist and environmentalist David Suzuki simply asks: "What is an economy for? How much is enough?"
Likewise, the film's footage of the successful history of non-violent protest movements over the past century is well-timed with the revolutions in the Arab street, and even closer to home in Wisconsin.
The documentary is sure to arouse some cynicism from hardened critics who dismiss the film as New Age drivel or faulty science (as when Shadyac humorously demonstrates the impact of his feelings on a bowl of yogurt). That would be unfortunate, and unfair.
The film may fall short in convincing viewers about the underlying cause of the world's ills -- war, hunger, poverty and the environmental crisis. However, what I Am accomplishes in 76 minutes is to lift up the wellspring of compassion and empathy that is hard-wired in each of us, point to the invisible threads of energy that bind us, and remind us that, in the words of the late Howard Zinn, "change comes from millions of tiny acts that seem insignificant."
Audiences who care about these themes (and why not everyone?), should get to I Am early in its theatrical run to help expand its limited release and move its message into the cultural zeitgeist.
I suspect the film could have its greatest impact among young people. While the so-called Facebook generation can be driven to distraction and navel-gazing, many of them know, deep inside, that adults have left them (and their children) a broken world.
"The younger generation from age 12 and up love this film," Shadyac told a sold-out audience at a screening in Marin County last Saturday night. "They are so open and closer to the source."
The past decade has seen a stream of documentaries that catalog the failed systems of the world -- from the environment (An Inconvenient Truth) food (Super Size Me and Food Inc.) education (Waiting for Superman and Race to Nowhere) health care (Sicko), and the U.S. financial system (Capitalism: A Love Story and Inside Job).
I Am and its director are a welcomed newcomer to the documentary scene, especially since, in the end, the film offers a hopeful antidote to disconnection and despair. It is a wake-up call to the forces of good within each of us to write a new story for the world.