Feel the electricity

Act of God is filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal's exploration of lightning strikes.

Act of God is filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal's exploration of lightning strikes

Filmmaker Jennifer Baichwald's new documentary Act of God examines the phenomenon of being struck by lighting. ((Alex Hermant/Mongrel Media))

A month ago, Jennifer Baichwal secured the opening spot at the Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto with Act of God, her enigmatic meditation on being struck by lightning.

The project was three years in the making. After a couple of years of research, Baichwal sent her cinematographer husband, Nick de Pencier, out into the storm to get hypnotic shots of gathering thunderheads, then collected stories from all over the world about people whose lives have been changed by lightning.

The Toronto-based director formed Mercury Films with de Pencier more than 10 years ago. In documentaries like Let It Come Down: The Life of Paul Bowles, The True Meaning of Pictures and Manufactured Landscapes (her acclaimed work about photographer Edward Burtynsky), Baichwal has frequently focused on artists and the nature of the creative process. She has also made a series of short documentaries about Canadian artists, including Michael Ondaatje, Judith Thompson and Michael Snow. Baichwal’s other preoccupations are philosophical and spiritual, as seen in films such as The Holier It Gets, about her trek to the source of the Ganges River in India. Act of God pulls the artistic and metaphysical strands together.

The film opens with a reflection by Canadian playwright James O’Reilly, who wrote a play called Act of God, about surviving a lightning strike 28 years ago. "I can't accept that it happened for a reason, nor can I really accept that there is no reason. The only way to carry on is to be humble, and a little bit in awe of these things you can't really understand," he says.

Another prominent voice in the documentary is American novelist Paul Auster, who witnessed a friend being killed by lightning when he was 14. Like O’Reilly, Auster waited years to write about it. Baichwal also tracked down a storm chaser in France, a group of Mexican mothers whose children were killed by lightning during a religious festival, and an African religion centred around a lightning god called Shango. The most enigmatic part of the film is an experiment that tested the brain signals of improvisational guitarist Fred Frith.

Baichwal is a multiple award winner at Hot Docs, and her international prestige has grown substantially since Manufactured Landscapes. Act of God is a little less startling, but it’s also a more personal film. Baichwal spoke to CBCNews.ca about the process of making her new documentary.

Q: What fascinated you about lightning?

A: When you think about it, the lightning bolt coming out of the sky is kind of the perfect metaphor for the paradox of being singled out by randomness. People use it that way. They say, "It was like being struck by lightning, it was a bolt out of the blue." Because of that as a natural event, the fact that it embodies this tension between meaning and chance and meaning and randomness, that was really the spark of the idea.

Of course, James O’Reilly’s monologue about being struck by lightning, Act of God, and Paul Auster’s story were huge catalysts in the beginning, because both of them resist attributing unwarranted meaning to this event, but keep circling around it.

Q: How did you pick these stories?

Lightning survivor Dannion Brinkley speaks with filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal. ((Alixandra Peters/Mongrel Media) )

A: None of our films really ever comes to a conclusion. They’re not those sorts of documentaries. There was no idea that we were going to prove a certain thing, [like that] we’re going to prove that lightning is meaningful, or the opposite. But we did want to have these stories that all explored different ways of responding to the same event. So the French storm chaser is someone who grappled with losing his soul from lightning, and then you have the resolute certainty of the Yoruba [religious] community, and then you have the more cerebral anguish of James O’Reilly and Paul Auster trying not to attribute any meaning. Then you have Dannion Brinkley, whose life completely changed from being struck by lightning after, as he says, dying for 28 minutes and going up to heaven and having a completely life-transforming experience.

The Mexican story was obviously the most difficult story because it was such a tragedy and if we had gone any earlier — we went a year later for the memorial service — I think to have gone any earlier would have been obscene. But also the fact that this was a deeply Catholic community. [In theology,] one of the major things that you study is the classical study of evil. If there is a God, who is omniscient, omnipotent and benevolent, how can something like this happen if you believe in a God like that? And there are all kinds of very complicated theological arguments trying to explain that fact. There are these two mothers — Salome and Maria — and one of them says, "God took my son to be an angel," and the other one, who says, "I was not ready for this to happen," so she is questioning her faith over this issue. And that was an incredibly intense and powerful experience, those women.

Novelist Paul Auster witnessed the death of a friend by lightning when he was 14. ((Nick de Pencier/Mongrel Media))

Q: Why are the voices of Paul Auster and James O’Reilly so prominent, compared to the other stories?

A: Auster, in a sense, is the philosophical anchor of the film and Fred Frith, the improvising musician, personally demonstrates that we are electrical beings and we live in an electrical world — the universe is electric.

We begin with O’Reilly because, as he says himself, he did not write about this experience for nearly 20 years, because he could not resist the temptation to intentionalize this random act. So that to me is the very essence of the question that we’re asking. And Auster, his whole body of work is preoccupied with coincidence and meaning and chance.

Q: You seem drawn to metaphysical subjects. You made a movie on the Ganges; you’ve studied theology. Are those your preoccupations?

A: They are preoccupations. I studied things that I was preoccupied with when I was in school. The reason I decided not to continue on [with theology] and become a teacher of those subjects is I thought that the method of inquiry was so limited. I would write a thesis and five people would read it. I thought, how could you explore these questions about the human condition that I think are in some ways fundamental to all of us? How can you explore those questions in a way that not only makes people think, but makes them feel and makes them wonder at the same time? The arena of documentary film is an arena that allows all those responses, the emotional response, the spiritual response, the visceral response, the intellectual response.

Q: How did you discover the Yoruba religion, which worships a god of lightning?

A: One of the things we found out quite early on is that Rwanda is the lightning capital of the world, in addition to all the other terrible things that have happened there. Rwanda led us to Nigeria, because the Yoruba religion has a very strong emphasis on Shango, the lightning god, and the Nigeria connection led us to Cuba, because Cuba has one of the largest Yoruba populations in that area. Brazil also.

A parade for lightning god Shango, a.k.a. Santa Barbara, in Palmira, Cuba. ((Nick de Pencier/Mongrel Media) )

At the Havana film festival, where Manufactured Landscapes was playing, somebody helped us and we found this small community, Palmira. It was Shango’s birthday and there were thousands of people at this celebration. People had been up for two days. There were no police, there was no violence. In the Yoruba religion, if you are struck by lightning, it’s a message that you’ve done something wrong and you’ve got to pay attention to that — that’s if you survive. That was a very interesting kind of certainty.

Cuba is fascinating because of the syncretism of Roman Catholicism and this religion. It’s overlaid in a way that is actually peaceful and unproblematic. Try to imagine somebody allowing the Catholic Santa Barbara — who is this saint in a red coat — to be taken for a male god in another religion. There they all are in the parade together — nobody minding, some people worshipping Santa Barbara, some people worshipping Shango, and it’s completely unproblematic.

Q: What is the story of Fred Frith, the guitarist?

A: This was always intended to be a parallel story — to plant a fuse. One, to demonstrate the fact that we are electrical beings, our brains work electrically. Secondly, Frith is probably the pre-eminent guitar improviser in the world. We met him through Peter Mettler, who filmed Manufactured Landscapes, and [Frith] said he would like to see what the electrical impulses in your brain look like when improvising music.

What was interesting in the course of the experiment is that your brain ideally would like to predict everything, would like to know everything in advance — that is the easiest state to be in. So really, it only learns from the things that happen that are unpredictable. It learns from accidents and it’s those things that allow it to expand its knowledge of the world. In the same way that a completely random event forces us to examine this relationship of what is meaning in life, in the brain, the brain expands from accidents, from something that it has never had to deal with before.

Because in some ways, improvisation is like living in the space between meaning and randomness. And living in that space without going to one or the other. And I found that fascinating, because I think that making documentary films requires the same sort of commitment to living in an interstitial place — an existential state of uncertainty.

Act of God is the Opening Night film at the Hot Docs Film Festival on April 30.The film gets a commercial release in Toronto on May 1, and opens in Vancouver and Ottawa on June 5, Victoria on June 7, Waterloo, Ont., on June 12, Guelph, Ont., on June 19, Winnipeg on July 31 and throughout the spring and summer in other cities.

Susan Noakes is an arts news writer for CBCNews.ca.