This is not a movie about the mistaken interpretation and translation of YHWH. I know, I was disappointed too. And no, “Sex in the City III: Duns Scotus in Manhattan” didn’t earn the “Most Franciscan Movie This Season” award, try harder next time, Carrie Bradshaw! “I am” is the project of Tom Shadyac, a Hollywood movie director best known for “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” “Liar, Liar” and “The Nutty Professor,” among others. After finding himself facing a serious illness stemming from an accident, he sought a “deeper meaning” in life. The result of that quest is this film.
He opens the movie with an explanation of how he came to work on such a project, but then presents two questions that he traveled around the globe to ask: “What is wrong with our world?” and “What can we do about it?” His cast of interviewees ranges from the randomly obscure to the most famous, including: Howard Zinn, Archbishop Desmund Tutu, Noam Chomsky and others. There are scientists and authors interviewed, but, with the exception of tutu, there are no explicitly religious figures in the film.
Curiously, although most of the commentary is offered by historians, cultural theorists, authors and scientists, what results is a deeply religious sentiment. One of the stand-alone quotations in the film is a line attributed to St. Francis (I’m not sure where it came from, but was credited to “St. Francis of Assisi”).
There are three ways in which this film reflects what I would consider an overtly “Franciscan” theme. (I can anticipate the eyes rolling already. “what makes something ‘Franciscan’? Aren’t you just projectings?” Fair questions. The answer is no.)
- The notion of an interconnectedness among all living things expressed as “kinship.” Those familiar with my recent work know that I’ve written on the explicitly kinship-based theological grammar of Creation found in the Franciscan intellectual and spiritual tradition. While not exclusively the domain of the Franciscan movement, it certainly reflects a worldview sympathetic to and in line with the Franciscan sensibility. At a certain point during the middle of the documentary, the commentators are edited in such a way as to concentrate the comments that have to do with the evidence and theories that highlight our interconnectedness. Familial language is used to describe that relationship among all of Creation.
- The Primacy of Relationship as Anthropological Truth. Sorry Rousseau, we are not inherently individuals who only form community in order to establish a cooperative for our joint protection, nourishment and utility, but are inherently social and relational creatures. This is something that, contrary to the common narrative in post-industrial society, is true about human beings. It is a truth that is also found in the center of Christianity (sorry to those who think that it is from the individual that we form our identity, but it is the community that forms the identity of the Christian who is a priori relational by virtue of baptism and a fortiori relational by virtue of ethical decision-making!) While not explicitly Christian or Franciscan, this preferential option for relationship over individuality as a constitutive anthropological truth again reflects the deeply relational quality of the Franciscan tradition.
- Nonviolence. This one is the most obvious of the three. There is a part in the film when many of the commentators are shown speaking about the importance and transformative value of nonviolent resistence in the world. Who better to comment on this than Archbishop Desmund Tutu? The point all of the interviewees make is that nonviolence has always been successful, there are plenty of examples, we just don’t often think of them first.
The film itself is of detectably low quality, something the filmmaker goes to great pains to highlight, noting both on his website and in the film itself that he only took a crew of four. And while I have mixed feelings about his self-deprecating reflections throughout and his eventual self-congratulatory commentary in light of his economic and social conversion, I still think it’s a movie worth seeing. I can foresee purchasing the DVD to use in ministerial and academic settings in the future to have students discuss its content, implications and their reactions to the project.
If you get a chance, support your local independent theater (I doubt this is playing at the suburban “Regal Cinemas” near you) and check out the documentary “I Am.” Let me know what you think of it. Oh, and the film’s advertising tagline is pretty funny, “I Am: The Shift is about to Hit the Fan!”