Sympathy is the ultimate message in documentary

Prior to the Sept. 29 screening of I Am on campus, director Tom Shadyac (Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Evan Almighty) addressed the audience. He asked all the film students present to remove their metaphorical film critic hats. This is his first documentary, he said, so cut him a little slack.

Fix the world · The movie’s interviews show varying views on life, poverty and faith. - Photo courtesy of Shady Acres

That wasn’t necessary. I Am is a fine documentary with an uplifting message that sets it apart from its contemporaries.

In 2007, Shadyac tumbled off his bicycle and onto his head. It wasn’t his first concussion, but this time the symptoms didn’t go away. Doctors diagnosed him with post-concussion syndrome, and he was in such a constant pain that although he was never suicidal, he felt his own mortality.

He asked himself what conversation he would like to have with the world if he were about to die. He wanted to know, “What’s wrong with our world and what can we do about it?”

Once he healed enough to endure air travel, he visited almost 20 people from different fields, including activist Noam Chomsky, historian Howard Zinn, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Shadyac’s father Richard, the former CEO of St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, the interview filmed before his death.

With the help of his interview subjects, Shadyac explains that poverty and war aren’t to blame. Those are the symptoms caused by a larger problem: human nature.

Shadyac argues that in the years since Charles Darwin first published Descent of Man, he’s been badly misinterpreted, with people thinking that survival of the fittest justifies competition. Therefore, it’s OK to strive to have more material belongings, more wealth and more junk while people sleep under the I-405. The collective shrug over that inequity comes from mankind’s belief that the have-nots just didn’t try hard enough.

According to Shadyac, this wasn’t really Darwin’s point. He and his interviewees stress that Darwin wrote about love and community more than survival of the fittest. The strongest human instinct, he surmised, is sympathy.

If it all sounds a little new age, Shadyac knows that. He offers examples of community and sympathy in nature. The most memorable one comes when he visits the Heartmath Institute in California. Senior researcher Rollin McCraty plugs electrodes into a Petri dish full of yogurt and has Shadyac talk about things that upset him. As he speaks to McCraty about his lawyer, his agent and his ex-wife, the electrodes measure strong reactions in the yogurt even though Shadyac is physically separated from both the electrodes and the yogurt.

This isn’t science fiction, Shadyac argues. It’s not new age either. It’s human. Humans affect each other and nature, and if everyone could just get along, the world would be a better place.

I Am delivers this message without becoming too preachy. Shadyac achieves this in part by stepping back from the film. Although his journey provides the impetus for the story, he allows his subjects to expound the larger lessons of this film.

Shadyac popped up occasionally, mostly to bridge together topics or drive home his themes. At the outset of the film, he asked his guests if they’ve ever seen Ace Ventura. Most hadn’t, and Shadyac highlighted that these people aren’t just his friends, giving their opinions more credence. Later, he revisited his enormous Pasadena mansion that he sold before moving into a motor home park in North Malibu with the hopes of living a simpler life. He did it, Shadyac seems to say, and everyone else can too.

Shadyac smartly uses more than just his interviews to tell his story. Fun bits of animation serve the same purpose. In one, he illustrates how scientific theory changed so much over the last millennium. In another, he shows how even Albert Einstein expressed confusion over how some atomic particles continued to act the same even when separated by “infinite distances.”

It’s easy to question if Shadyac manipulated his footage, particularly in the case of empathic yogurt. In another instance, he said he only asked his subjects, “What’s wrong with the world, and what can we do about it?”

Yet they talk so long on so many different subjects, he undoubtedly had an actual conversation with the people he interviewed after he asked those questions.

In the post-screening Q&A, Shadyac said he’s only interested in the truth, and that’s all he represented. Shadyac seems genuine enough both in the film and in person that those small blemishes don’t detract from I Am. It’s an uplifting experience that changes the question. It’s not about what’s wrong with the world, it’s what’s right with it. And answer lies in the title: I Am (you are).

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