Roger Nygard’s documentary The Nature of Existence suggests how flexible and inclusive the term "underground" is in the Atlanta Underground Film Festival. For its sixth year, the festival presents more than 100 shorts and features from well outside the movie mainstream. Underground film might conjure images of taboo-breaking indies such as Adam Goldstein and Eric Kutner’s The Snake (Sun., Aug. 30, 8:30 p.m., at Eyedrum), a comedy about dating a bulimic.
But The Nature of Existence (3 stars, Sat., Aug. 29, 9 p.m., at the Carter Center) avoids flirting with offensive content or indulging in avant-garde style and instead takes on the biggest themes imaginable. Nygard, director of the droll doc Trekkies, takes a philosophical trip to the real final frontier. He crosses the world and inquires after the meaning of life, whether God and the afterlife exist, and more. Nygard introduces the film by observing about his childhood, “I remember church as being a countdown to brunch.” He also explains how Sept. 11 inspired him to explore the big questions.
Early on, the film reveals that Nygard won’t be able to convey much of major substance. He presents soundbites from a dizzying quantity of scientists, authors and representatives of the world’s major faiths — not to mention minor ones, such as a Druid biker named Arthur Pendragon and a Magus from the Church of Satan. The Nature of Existence coincides with two other recent spiritual quest documentaries: the pro-yoga Enlighten Up! and Bill Maher’s anti-religious Religulous. Opposing viewpoints tend to cancel each other out in Existence, and scenes in which Nygard plays tourist in China and India show the accoutrements of different faiths more than their theological substance.
Nevertheless, The Nature of Existence gives audiences plenty to consider because, even given the snappy editing, Nygard’s best interviewees say interesting things. A brain expert discusses studies that suggest couples who have children experience less overall happiness, but greater overall satisfaction than those who don’t. A seventh grader persuasively backs up her statement “There is no afterlife. I think that’s a lot better than eternal happiness.” An ex-Scientologist and expert on cults suggests that people avoid thinking about the general meaning of life and focus on the meaning of their individual lives.
Nygard probably gives unnecessary attention to colorful weirdoes such as the androgynous guru who aspires to be “as radiant as fuck” or the Bible-thumper who berates students on college campuses. Fortunately, he allows the DNA experts and quantum theorists to flesh out some of their more complex ideas. One wonders if it devoted more time to fewer personalities, if The Nature of Existence would have had a bit more philosophical meat on its bones. Still, it’s plenty lively and smart for a 90-minute film with such lofty goals.