I AM : The Film, the Message and... Water Bottles?

I went to a screening of the documentary, I AM. It was written and directed by Tom Shadyac, a Hollywood director whose projects include Ace Ventura, The Nutty Professor and Bruce Almighty.

The film is about Shadyac's journey after battling a serious case of post-concussion syndrome caused by a bike accident that causes him to question the existing societal paradigm that encourages separateness, greed and competition. In his quest Shadyac meets with several thinkers, scientists and spiritual and community leaders to explore how we as a society have erroneously learned to behave and offer an alternative viewpoint. Being interested in this type of discussion and having a degree in Theology, I was intrigued.

The documentary was provocative and creative in its demonstration of how our society has been brainwashed into believing that money, materialism and self-centeredness are the basis of happiness. From a spiritual perspective I can't say I learned anything new, but from a scientific standpoint I found the experiments and information about how we are all connected to everything very interesting and enlightening. It made me again question my eating habits as I've been toying with the idea of vegetarianism. I don't eat red meat, (aside from an occasional IKEA hot dog) but wondered if we're all connected, is eating a cucumber any different than eating a chicken?

After the screening Shadyac appeared for a Q & A session. It's funny because in my experience whenever there's a Q & A session, most people don't actually have a question. They get on the mic and blather on about themselves. "Hi, I'm Monica. I'm a dog walker. I walk seventeen dogs a day around Central Park. It's really hard sometimes because I have a damaged ligament in my leg that I suffered while in Bangkok when I worked for a company that made kewpie dolls -- I made the eyes. I'm actually a graphic designer but after the recession I couldn't find work. So anyway, one day while I was carrying the tray of false eyelashes back to my work area I accidentally tripped on a loose board in the floor and..." DO YOU HAVE A QUESTION??? This is what it's like, every time. Some insecure attention seeker moseys up to the mic to tell his/her life story, while the audience cringes like I used to when I'd get embarrassed for people while watching Showtime at the Apollo. So Shadyac prompts these people to get to their questions and addresses them. But at the end of the session he did something I found strange.

Shadyac announced that he had gifts! Great! The energy of the audience was even more elevated. But then he announced that he was only giving the gifts (a water bottle emblazoned with the title of his film) to the people who "had the courage to ask questions". This felt kind of shady, Shadyac.

I had a brief conversation with the woman sitting next to me about how this act completely contradicted everything we'd just watched in his film. Shadyac was rewarding the more "courageous", i.e. stronger, more successful group, creating competition and divisiveness. The screening was attended by many students and the young women who'd all come from the same school sitting in the row in front of me looked at each other momentarily like, "Whaaaa?" The energy of the audience seemed to dip.

I found the comment about people having the "courage" to ask questions a bit insulting. Wasn't everyone at the screening questioning the existing societal paradigm by merely attending, therefore demonstrating at the very least an openness to a paradoxical way of thinking and consequently living? And most of the people didn't even really have questions but seemed to want to be seen and heard, so essential Shadyac was rewarding ego and not courage. It was a very strange and unfortunate way to end an otherwise powerful event.

If we're all equal and equally deserving then shouldn't everyone have received a gift? Either everyone gets something or no one does. The water bottle situation mirrored a sequence in the movie that showed how the Native American community, once an egalitarian society, became divided into "The Haves" and "The Have-Nots". Shadyac explains that Native Americans started out treating each other equally and everyone was provided for. But then the better (stronger and more "courageous") hunters started hoarding food and kept it from the weaker, older and sickly people in the community, creating a divisive culture. Hmmm... watching the water bottles being distributed to a few "courageous" members of the audience felt unfortunately similar to this.

Though the distribution of "gifts" to a select group of people provided a moment of disillusionment, I do believe Shadyac has good intentions but just made a bad judgment call. But this isn't about water bottles, this is about the apparentness of how difficult it really is to fully commit to an elevated belief system and consistently apply it your life, no matter your intentions. (As "enlightened" as I'm trying to be I still get somewhat enraged when I have to carefully navigate the sidewalks in my neighborhood to avoid injury from getting run over by a mega stroller or inadvertently being ambushed by a toddler with sticky hands.) And this may also be about the act of separating man from the message.

Going forward I hope Shadyac will re-think this reward system at future screenings because the message of the project is too important to by marred by a trivial act as a result of a lapse in judgment. But despite the water bottle debacle, I AM is a good film that will hopefully shake people up, provoke thought and help people live happier and freer lives.