Arcs Poetica: The Life and Death of Lightning: “Act of God,” directed by Jennifer Baichwal

Jennifer Baichwal, the award-winning Canadian documentarian, likes looking in from on high and from a distance. All her films open this way: in The True Meaning of Pictures we are above the cushioned treetops of Appalachia; in Let It Come Down: The Life of Paul Bowles we view vast stretches of sand in northern Morocco; in Manufactured Landscapes we are a micro eye watching the macro industry of the New China pass by; and in Act of God we look down from the charged sky onto the soon-to-be-electrified landscape. The perspective is consistently Olympian, the view of a consciousness who sets knowledge in motion. In this sense, Baichwal performs the godly function. But her message is less about providing certainties to the vexing problems her films raise than acknowledging that the places, people and situations she encounters open a chasm of questions. Baichwal’s accomplished body of work inquires into questions of faith and belief and leaves us with a sense that any conclusions we come up with are, at best, provisional. They exist not in the getting there, but in the going. Jennifer Baichwal is a conscience on the move …

In Act of God, her most recent and far-ranging inquiry into the form and operation of belief, she looks skyward to consider the compulsive need humans have to assign meaning to events. The film tells seven stories about individuals who have been struck by lightning. In being about one of the most physical events imaginable (and one of the most unlikely: the odds of being hit by lightning are one in 700,000), she has made a film that is largely metaphysical.

Her investigation is framed by Paul Auster, the American writer, speaking for the range of people who appear in the film. They come from a variety of cultures and hold to a wide variety of attitudes, running from faith to skepticism. The survivors of lightning strikes, while they may differ about what the occurrence means in the larger philosophical scheme of things, agree about one thing. As Auster says, “it changed my whole way of looking at the world.” His own story is as dramatic and transformative as any recounted in the film. He was a 14-year-old boy at summer camp when his group was caught in a storm “ripped from the pages of the Bible.” His best friend Ralph was only a few feet ahead of him, crawling under a barbed wire fence when he was hit. “There’s something monumental about a lightning bolt coming from the sky that doesn’t feel like an ordinary death. It has something divine about it, something so transcendently scary that it opened up a whole realm of speculation that I’ve continued to live with ever since.” Auster says he doesn’t believe in destiny, but he does subscribe to “the mechanics of reality,” and the mechanism he uses to get at that reality is story. In “Why I Write,” his economically vibrant short essay, he offers what he formulates as “a kind of ars poetica, but not through theory, just telling it through stories.” Baichwal makes his method an operating device of her own; he effectively plays Virgil to her Dante, framing the film and guiding her through the emotional and psychological spaces in which she finds herself, whether in Northern Ontario, Palmira, Cuba, Santa Maria del Rio, Mexico, Las Vegas or Marcenet, France. In each of these places the questions “why did it happen?” and “what did it mean?” perennially come up. At the risk of simplicity, there seem to be only three responses: belief, complete doubt or ambivalence, which is a case of not knowing either way …

Act of God was screened on the opening night of the Hot Docs Festival in Toronto on April 30, 2009, the first time a Canadian documentary has been so honoured.

See issue 110 to read Robert Enright’s entire review!

Volume 28, Number 2

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #110, published June 2009.

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