“I Am”: After accident director Tom Shadyac “wants to know what’s true”

Something terrible happened to Tom Shadyac. Few people leave the comfort of normality, go through the looking glass and know terrible suffering–even know that it exists. But that’s what happened to Shadyac when a head injury from a bike accident gave him a sort of permanent concussion, an unrelenting pain that made him want to kill himself.

Shadyac made Hollywood comedies that were enormously successful–among them, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and The Nutty Professor. They made him rich and pretty famous. But not even the enormous wealth he accumulated as a director could save him. After his accident he seemed condemned.

Like the Buddha, a prince among men, he suddenly saw the face of suffering–illness, old age, and death–and his life, if it continued, wouldn’t be the same.

When he miraculously began to regain some of his capacities, he undertook the investigation of two central questions: “What’s wrong with the world?” and “What can we do about it?” The film I Am–now available on video–explores these questions with interviews with philosophers, scientists, and religious figures.

Tacitly, the film also asks, “What makes us happy?” Not surprisingly, he concludes that wealth isn’t the answer. “Much to my surprise, the accumulation of material wealth was a neutral phenomenon, neither good or bad, and certainly did not buy happiness.”

In his explorations of other cultures, he finds that in many societies hoarding is a aberration; living in a vastly larger house than others is even considered mental illness. Now instead of a huge mansion, Shadyac lives in a small trailer.

His accident may have brought out a tendency that was already there, a drive to pursue truth. “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.”

I Am being us along on Shadyac’s search for truth–his process of unlearning what he was taught, wiping all assumptions clean, and striking out on a path to find out what, if anything, is true.

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