Roger Nygard's head was filled with existential angst prior to embarking on his four-year odyssey directing his new documentary, The Nature of Existence. But the Orono, Minnesota, native knew that by traveling the world with a camera and asking life's greatest philosophical questions of a diverse group of people from a variety of spiritual disciplines, he could not only earn himself a little peace of mind but also pull together an intriguing kaleidoscope of human beliefs suitable for the big screen.
"I decided to make a list of the 85 toughest questions I could think of," Nygard says, "starting with the biggest one of all, Why do we exist? I gave them to over a hundred spiritual leaders, scholars, scientists, gurus, even atheists, all over the world. I asked, What is man's purpose? What is truth? What is the best way to find happiness? Is there an afterlife? And so on."
The answers form the building blocks of Nygard's documentary, opening Saturday at the Parkway Theater in Minneapolis. It's the last release in a series of openings Nygard has staged across the country. All showings on Saturday will be followed by a question-and-answer session, which Nygard has been routinely offering since first bringing his documentary to film festivals over a year ago.
He says these Q-and-A sessions have proven to be as controversial and diverse as the film itself.
"I tend to look at this film as a comedy, because I think life is ultimately rather absurd," Nygard says. "I honestly think if we couldn't laugh at it, we'd all go insane. But I've had people get quite angry with me after seeing this film. I've had people become real sad or start crying. I've had people pressuring me to choose a 'winner' from the various views presented, or questioning why 'their side' wasn't better represented."
Nygard says he has warned people before viewing the documentary that, depending on where they're coming from, "the film could mess them up."
"At one release we had a woman stand up after the film was over and tell the audience she had recently completed her last chemotherapy session and that throughout her cancer treatments she had this strong belief system that she had clung to for support. She was in tears as she said that this film had just shaken the foundations of all she'd been hanging onto."
Nygard says he's come to see the film as a Rorschach test for audiences. What they see in the film tends to say more about their own lives, he says, than it does about the perspectives conveyed. "Some people come to this film hoping their view will win out. When it doesn't, they feel quite threatened."
Although Nygard says he never intended his efforts to deliver any definitive cosmic truth, he believes clues can be found throughout the film that direct people to answers as important and meaningful as any that are out there.
For his part, he says, he actually found much of the peace of mind he'd been searching for, though perhaps not exactly what he'd expected to discover when first embarking on the journey.
"For me, the thing that gradually became clear was that the universe was created, we don't know by whom, or by what, but this creation unfolded, and continues to unfold, and we're all obviously a part of that. Our sense of contentment is derived from participating in it. Our joy seems to come from jumping into the flow of that creation, not doing the opposite, which is destroying, and not being a bystander either. Whether we're designing a garden or a dance or a poem or bringing a new baby into the world, we're aligning ourselves with the great vibe of this universe, and happiness is the byproduct of that—the byproduct of immersing ourselves in our purpose, which is to share in creation."
What Nygard says he took from some 450 hours of film footage may not be what others take from the 93-minute final product he presents, but he says all will end up encountering a wondrous world of beliefs as varied and sundry as the flora and fauna of the planet itself, and they'll have several surprising laughs in the process.
As is human nature, however, Nygard says those laughs will tend to come when the "other person's views" are being discussed.
"If you arrive at this film with entrenched perspectives," Nygard says, "it might not be as entertaining. You're probably going to walk away a little less comfortable."