Tuesday, August 23, 2011


Sometimes I like to use my blog to share with you inspiring things that I have seen or heard. This documentary, which many of you may already have seen, really struck a chord in me, somewhere so deeply hidden that I had forgotten it was there, and I have only seen the trailer thus far... I am now frantically looking for a place where I can see it or (legally!) download it. I leave you with the official description of the film, the trailer and the hope you will go and see it, pass it on, and that it will change your lives too. Happy trails, Bart.

I AM is an utterly engaging and entertaining non-fiction film that poses two practical and provocative questions: what’s wrong with our world, and what can we do to make it better? The filmmaker behind the inquiry is Tom Shadyac, one of Hollywood’s leading comedy practitioners and the creative force behind such blockbusters as “Ace Ventura,” “Liar Liar,” “The Nutty Professor,” and “Bruce Almighty.” However, in I AM, Shadyac steps in front of the camera to recount what happened to him after a cycling accident left him incapacitated, possibly for good. Though he ultimately recovered, he emerged with a new sense of purpose, determined to share his own awakening to his prior life of excess and greed, and to investigate how he as an individual, and we as a race, could improve the way we live and walk in the world.

Armed with nothing but his innate curiosity and a small crew to film his adventures, Shadyac set out on a twenty-first century quest for enlightenment. Meeting with a variety of thinkers and doers–remarkable men and women from the worlds of science, philosophy, academia, and faith–including such luminaries as David Suzuki, Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Lynne McTaggart, Ray Anderson, John Francis, Coleman Barks, and Marc Ian Barasch – Shadyac appears on-screen as character, commentator, guide, and even, at times, guinea pig. An irrepressible “Everyman” who asks tough questions, but offers no easy answers, he takes the audience to places it has never been before, and presents even familiar phenomena in completely new and different ways. The result is a fresh, energetic, and life-affirming film that challenges our preconceptions about human behavior while simultaneously celebrating the indomitable human spirit.

The pursuit of truth has been a lifelong passion for Shadyac. “As early as I can remember I simply wanted to know what was true,” he recalls, “and somehow I perceived at a very early age that what I was being taught was not the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” He humorously describes himself as “questioning and searching and stumbling and fumbling toward the light.” The “truth” may have been elusive, but success wasn’t. Shadyac’s films grossed nearly two billion dollars and afforded him the glamorous and extravagent A-List lifestyle of the Hollywood blockbuster filmmaker. Yet Shadyac found that more – in his case, a 17,000-square foot art-filled mansion, exotic antiques, and private jets — was definitely less. “What I discovered, when I began to look deeply, was that the world I was living in was a lie,” he explains. “Much to my surprise, the accumulation of material wealth was a neutral phenomenon, neither good or bad, and certainly did not buy happiness.” Gradually, with much consideration and contemplation, he changed his lifestyle. He sold his house, moved to a mobile home community, and started life—a simpler and more responsible life – anew.

But, at this critical juncture, Shadyac suffered an injury that changed everything. “In 2007, I got into a bike accident which left me with Post Concussion Syndrome, a condition where the symptoms of the original concussion don’t go away.” These symptoms include intense and painful reactions to light and sound, severe mood swings, and a constant ringing sound in the head. Shadyac tried every manner of treatment, traditional and alternative, but nothing worked. He suffered months of isolation and pain, and finally reached a point where he welcomed death as a release. “I simply didn’t think I was going to make it,” he admits.

But, as Shadyac wisely points out, “Death can be a very powerful motivator.” Confronting his own mortality, he asked himself, “If this is it for me – if I really am going to die – what do I want to say before I go? What will be my last testament?” It was Shadyac’s modern day dark night of soul and out of it, I AM was born. Thankfully, almost miraculously, his PCS symptoms began to recede, allowing him to travel and use his movie-making skills to explore the philosophical questions that inhabited him, and to communicate his findings in a lively, humorous, intellectually-challenging, and emotionally-charged film.

But this would not be a high-octane Hollywood production. The director whose last film had a crew of 400, assembled a streamlined crew of four, and set out to find, and film, the thinkers who had helped to change his life, and to seek a better understanding of the world, its inhabitants, their past, and their future. Thus, Shadyac interviews scientists, psychologists, artists, environmentalists, authors, activists, philosophers, entrepreneurs, and others in his quest for truth. Bishop Desmond Tutu, Dr. Noam Chomsky, historian Dr. Howard Zinn, physicist Lynne McTaggart, and poet Coleman Banks are some of the subjects who engage in fascinating dialogue with Shadyac.

Shadyac was very specific about what he was after, wanting I AM to identify the underlying cause of the world’s ills – “I didn’t want to hear the usual answers, like war, hunger, poverty, the environmental crisis, or even greed,” he explains. “These are not the problems, they are the symptoms of a larger endemic problem. In I AM, I wanted to talk about the root cause of the ills of the world, because if there is a common cause, and we can talk about it, air it out in a public forum, then we have a chance to solve it.”

Ironically, in the process of trying to figure out what’s wrong with the world, Shadyac discovered there’s more right than he ever imagined. He learned that the heart, not the brain, may be man’s primary organ of intelligence, and that human consciousness and emotions can actually affect the physical world, a point Shadyac makes with great humor by demonstrating the impact of his feelings on a bowl of yogurt. And, as Shadyac’s own story illustrates, money is not a pathway to happiness. In fact, he even learns that in some native cultures, gross materialism is equated with insanity.

Shadyac also discovers that, contrary to conventional thinking, cooperation and not competition, may be nature’s most fundamental operating principle. Thus, I AM shows consensus decision-making is the norm amongst many species, from insects and birds to deer and primates. The film further discovers that humans actually function better and remain healthier when expressing positive emotions, such as love, care, compassion, and gratitude, versus their negative counterparts, anxiety, frustration, anger and fear. Charles Darwin may be best known for popularizing the notion that nature is red in tooth and claw, but, as Shadyac points out, he used the word love 95 times in The Descent of Man, while his most famous phrase,survival of the fittest, appears only twice.

“It was a revelation to me that for tens of thousands of years, indigenous cultures taught a very different story about our inherent goodness,” Shadyac marvels. “Now, following this ancient wisdom, science is discovering a plethora of evidence about our hardwiring for connection and compassion, from the Vagus Nerve which releases oxytocin at simply witnessing a compassionate act, to the Mirror Neuron which causes us to literally feel another person’s pain. Darwin himself, who was misunderstood to believe exclusively in our competitiveness, actually noted that humankind’s real power comes in their ability to perform complex tasks together, to sympathize and cooperate.”

Shadyac’s enthusiastic depiction of the brighter side of human nature and reality, itself, is what distinguishes I AM from so many well-intentioned, yet ultimately pessimistic, non-fiction films. And while he does explore what’s wrong with the world, the film’s overwhelming emphasis is focused on what we can do to make it better. Watching I AM is ultimately, for many, a transformative experience, yet Shadyac is reluctant to give specific steps for viewers who have been energized by the film. “What can I do?” “I get asked that a lot,” he says. “But the solution begins with a deeper transformation that must occur in each of us. I AM isn’t as much about what you can do, as who you can be. And from that transformation of being, action will naturally follow.”

Shadyac’s transformation remains in process. He still lives simply, is back on his bicycle, riding to work, and teaching at a local college, another venue for sharing his life-affirming discoveries. Reflecting Shadyac’s philosophy is the economic structure of the film’s release; all proceeds from I AM will go to The Foundation for I AM, a non-profit established by Shadyac to fund various worthy causes and to educate the next generation about the issues and challenges explored in the film. When he directs another Hollywood movie, the bulk of his usual eight-figure fee will be deposited into a charitable account, as well. “St. Augustine said, ‘Determine what God has given you, and take from it what you need; the remainder is needed by others.’ That’s my philosophy in a nutshell,” Shadyac says, “Or as Gandhi put it, ‘Live simply, so others may simply live.’”

Shadyac’s enthusiasm and optimism are contagious. Whether conducting an interview with an intellectual giant, or offering himself as a flawed character in the narrative of the film, Shadyac is an engaging and persuasive guide as we experience the remarkable journey that is I AM. With great wit, warmth, curiosity, and masterful storytelling skills, he reveals what science now tells us is one of the principal truths of the universe, a message that is as simple as it is significant: We are all connected – connected to each other and to everything around us. “My hope is that I AM is a window into Truth, a glimpse into the miracle, the mystery and magic of who we really are, and of the basic nature of the connection and unity of all things. In a way,” says Shadyac, a seasoned Hollywood professional who has retained his unerring eye for a great story, “I think of I AM as the ultimate reality show.”

Written & Directed by: Tom Shadyac
Producer: Dagan Handy

Editor: Jennifer Abbott

Co-Producer: Jacquelyn Zampella

Associate Producer :: Nicole Pritchett

Director of Photography: Roko Belic
Executive Producers: Jennifer Abbott, Jonathan Watson
Media and PR Coordinator: Harold Mintz
Graphic Designers: Yusuke Nagano, Barry Thompson
Release Dates: March 11, 2011 – Los Angeles, March 18, 2011 – New York
Running Time: 80 minutes
Rating: Not rated

Monday, August 08, 2011

South America Road-trip in an old-timer

Part 1 – Peru to Ecuador in a 1968 Volvo Amazon

I really, really, really like driving through South America. This is one of my favorite things to do. Lately, since we have children now and my life has changed somewhat, this does not happen as much as I would like, but every now and then I get to hit the road again. Last December I got lucky, a good friend of mine, Johan van Rijswijck, asked me if I would like to come on a trip with him to scout out part of a rally he was planning. Johan owns Sapapana Travel, a Dutch tour operator specializing in Latin America. We often work together, however, on this particular rally we had decided not to (Class Adventure Travel have a large Dakar Rally event at roughly the same time), but of course I was more than happy to help out and be Johan’s co-driver on the journey from Lima to Cartagena.

The trip was supposed to take place at the end of September, but during the previous stretch (Buenos Aires-Lima) Johan and his other co-driver had had a streak of bad luck ending in a blown-up engine some 300 miles before arriving in the City of Kings. Both he and I had to fly back home (I was already waiting for him in Lima) as repairing the engine of his 1968 Volvo Amazon was going to take quite some time. Parts are not really available in Latin America these days and most had to come from Germany and Sweden. Luckily there is a Volvo Club in Lima and its then president, Karl Spihlman, himself a totalVolvo aficionado, was of enormous help and rebuilt the engine from scratch. At the beginning of December we both flew back to Lima to begin our journey.

After picking up the car, we left on Saturday morning 9am, 11 December. We had 850km to go and that meant a full day’s driving. It is a little bit of a hassle to leave Lima to the north, and probably due to the upcoming elections, road-works were in progress virtually everywhere. It took us three hours to get out of the city and it wasn’t until noon that we were really able to get moving…

The new engine also meant that we had to take it easy for the first 1,000 km: 80kph max. While the almost perfectly asphalted open roads really invited us to drive faster. But there was no way around it - we weren’t going to break the engine again - so we settled for a nice long drive in the Peruvian sun. The coastal desert road we were following sometimes gave way to stunning views of the Pacific Ocean and other times took us over impressive sand dunes. We were already driving in the dark before we reached Trujillo, but we weren’t at our destination yet. The driving was good, but after Trujillo we entered a more populated area so the traffic increased and made it difficult to push on through to Chiclayo, our planned destination for that day. We finally arrived past midnight, found our hotel, checked in and hit the sack immediately. We had a 9am start the next day.

Sunday started like a breeze, we had Chiclayo behind us and were back on the Pan-American Highway in no time. The road was in perfect condition, but we still couldn’t drive over 80kph and could only change the oil and filters after a minimum of 1,000km. Still, we managed to reach Piura in the early afternoon, picked up some snacks for the road, filled the tank and found a garage to change the oil, before hitting the road again. We decided to push the engine a little and see how fast we could go, so we made some good mileage. We left the coast behind us and drove northeast. Slowly but surely the landscape changed; the desert morphed into more tropical surroundings and we even passed some rice-fields. Around 4pm we reached the Ecuadorian border. It was a great setting, a river meandering down from the mountains, crossed by an old bridge, bordered on one side by a large gate saying ‘Peru’ and on the other by a huge sign indicating one was entering Ecuador. Formalities on the Peruvian side only took 15 minutes and it seemed we would have a similarly easy entry into Ecuador, but that turned out a little bit differently. The customs officers were as charmed by the old automobile as everyone we had passed along the way and the stamps in our passports were arranged within minutes. Only when we tried to check in the car it turned out that there was only one officer that was allowed to give clearance, and the said gentleman was out for lunch with his girlfriend in a village nearby… So, there was nothing to do but wait and we started up a conversation with an Argentine couple from Mendoza on their way to Caracas (Why not? Nice drive!). Luckily it only took half an hour for the officer to return to his post and formalities here turned out to actually be as easy as on the other side; after 15 minutes we were back on track.

In Ecuador the road led us directly into the mountains. Beautiful scenery, but the quality of the road surface was a lot less than what we had gotten used to in Peru. Luckily there were so many signs (sometimes up to three identical signs in the same place) that it was hard to miss the direction to the town of Loja. We were lucky to have filled up our tank in Piura as most gas stations in this part of Ecuador were closed as it was Sunday. Due to the road conditions and many curves we moved a lot slower on this stretch. Initially we expected to arrive in Loja around 7pm, but quickly had to reset our ETA to 9pm. After 6pm the sun was gone, which reminded us how close we were to the equator. This meant extra careful driving, especially when we suddenly entered an area of very dense fog. We could see around 2-3 meters ahead of us if we were lucky, sometimes we simply had to feel if our tires hit the sides of the road, so you can imagine we took our time to get through this area. We had just about moved our ETA to midnight when the mist disappeared just as suddenly as it had appeared, the clouds lifted from the mountain and we were driving on, eventually reaching Loja at 8.30pm. Loja is situated at an altitude of 2100masl, which gives the town a very nice climate. Never extremely hot or cold and situated in a beautiful green setting surrounded by nature, Loja promises some great outings for a future trip to Ecuador. Upon arrival in the hotel we ordered some food and of course a couple of beers, but this turned out to be impossible. Recently a law was passed in Ecuador prohibiting the consumption of alcohol on Sunday afternoons after 4pm (which reminds me I need to write a piece on seriously funny laws in Latin America; have seen a couple in Peru lately that caught my eye…). Our Colombian waiter tried to explain this to us, but when he saw the disbelief in our faces he was friendly enough to make an exception, so we could enjoy a nice illegal beer before turning in.

Monday consisted of a relatively short drive to Cuenca, some 200km from Loja, and departing on time we made it there by lunch time. Cuenca is worth a visit, with its beautifully preserved colonial city center and amazing cathedral. It is generally regarded as Ecuador’s most beautiful city. It took us just 3.5 hours driving over a perfectly asphalted road through the mountains, climbing to 3500masl before descending into the adjacent valley. A nicely curved road through a green, mountainous landscape made this a short, but attractive driving day.

To be continued...