ACT OF GOD directed by Jennifer Baichwal. A Mongrel Media release. 75 minutes. Screens Thursday (April 30), 6:30 pm at the Winter Garden. Then opens at the Varsity Friday (May 1). See Times.
I have a lightning story.
About 10 years ago, I was leaving the Court Jester pub on Yonge with some friends after a spectacular rainstorm. I was the first one out the door, and I saw the store windows across the road light up like someone was taking a flash photograph. When I turned around, my friends were huddled in the doorway, thoroughly freaked. A bolt of lightning had struck no more than 4 inches from my heel.
Years later, during another storm, I told this story to my wife. Her eyes went wide. "That was you?" Turns out she was in the pub, too; she'd worked nearby and happened to be waiting out the storm there with some office mates. It would be years before we'd meet.
Naturally, I have to tell this story to Jennifer Baichwal when we meet, the week before her film makes its world premiere at Hot Docs. (It goes directly into theatrical release the next day.) And she's delighted.
"Oh my god!" she says, leaning forward on the interview suite's couch, her eyes wide. "The film is all about coincidence, so those stories are incredible. You know, it's so funny - the odds of this are one in 600,000, but everybody we talked to when we said we were making this film said, ‘Oh, my uncle...' or something like that. Imagine what it was like for the people who were standing right behind you. What did they say? I wonder what attracted it there."
Baichwal's had a few close calls of her own. While working on Act Of God, which explores the metaphysical repercussions for people who've experienced lightning strikes, she and her producer/cinematographer husband, Nick de Pencier, wound up in the middle of more than a few storms.
"We carried the camera around with us for two years," she says. "You can't predict when a storm is going to happen, so we just filmed whenever one came up. But once we were in Florida, and a bolt came so close - we were in a golf cart filming this incredible storm on a beach. Torrential rain. It was pitch black, and you get that incredibly eerie flash where everything is illuminated for a moment; then it's back to darkness.
"A bolt came so close to us that I had this sensation of my retinas being burned. I couldn't see; I opened and closed my eyes and couldn't see anything but this bright light. It was 30 or 40 seconds before I could clear my eyes again. Then we decided, ‘Okay, it's time to go in.'"
The storm footage largely serves as the backdrop to Baichwal's philosophical inquiry. As she discovered while interviewing everyone from novelist Paul Auster to the peasants of a Mexican village who lost five children in a lightning strike at a hilltop shrine, some people see lightning as indicative of a chaotic and unpredictable universe, while others find in it the hand of God at work.
"It's all about complete certainty," she says. "If lightning strikes, there's a reason for it - you're being given a clear message. And that's, of course, the completely unanswerable question: if you are a religious person and you believe in God, how can you possibly make sense of events like this? In Mexico, one mother says, ‘God took my son to be an angel.' And the other mother says, ‘I'm not sure that is true.' There are different responses, affirming faith or questioning faith.
"It's such a difficult thing to think about, and it's obscene to give an easy answer. How can you possibly explain five children getting killed praying in front of a cross? There is no answer for that. The only response is to try to have empathy with their suffering. That's the only way you can really understand it."
Jennifer Baichwal on interview subjects Fred Frith and Paul Auster:
Baichwal on the ultimate themes of the film:
Baichwal on finding structure in the edit room: