Four young men gather firewood on a neighbor’s farm. Suddenly there’s a blinding flash followed by an ear-splitting explosion. A lightning bolt flattens them. Three men get back up, dazed but relatively unscathed. The fourth man is dead.
At the victim’s funeral, the dead man’s sister looks at the three survivors and asks: “Why are you still alive while my brother is dead?” That question is the focus of Canadian filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal’s Act of God, a documentary about the survivors of lightning strikes.
“This is about the ‘why’, the unanswerable nature of it,” Baichwal says. “For someone who has experienced this and survived, or been in proximity to someone who has experienced this and not survived, it is almost impossible not to see it as some kind of sign, a radical message, an event to be pondered and divined.”
The documentary explores the intertwining questions of chance and fate. Is a lightning strike merely a random example of nature’s power or are there larger forces at work? Baichwal and her husband, cinematographer Nick de Pencier traveled to the U, Mexico, Cuba, and France to interview survivors. Regardless of background or nationality, survivors of a lightning strike remember the event as a transformative moment in their lives.
Novelist Paul Auster recalls in vivid detail the death of a boyhood friend during a summer camp hike: “The woods were thick with trees… and when the sky turned black it was like night. Then the thunder started, then the lightning started, and the rain poured down so hard it actually hurt. It was a storm ripped from the pages of the Bible, it went on and on, like it would never end. “
“In our panic we tried to run away from it, but everywhere we ran we were met by more lightning. When the thunder exploded you could feel the noise vibrating inside your body. The lightning was dancing around us like spears, a sudden flash that turned everything ghostly white.”
Lightning strikes a camper as he crawls under a barbed wire fence. “Ralph stopped moving and I grabbed his arm and dragged him through,” Auster continues. “His skin took on a blue tinge, his body seemed colder to my touch… I was only fourteen and had never seen a dead person.”
Act of God has no formal structure. Baichwal simply points the camera at her subjects as they recount their stories. De Pencier provides video of lightning storms while improvisational guitarist Fred Frith adds music to the narratives. The method is effective, giving the stories’ sensory depth.
Each survivor tries to place the event within a personal cosmic order: “There’s something monumental about a lightning bolt coming from the sky,” Auster says. “It doesn’t seem like a ordinary death, it has something of the divine about it, and there’s something transcendently scary about it,”
James O’Reilley, one of the men who survived a lightning strike while gathering firewood, goes for a scientific explanation, yet seems just as perplexed about the ‘why’: “Electricity tries to balance itself out… a lightning bolt comes from an excessively negative charge in the air. The mysterious thing is that the electrical polarity of the ground will shift from negative to positive as a storm approaches, almost inviting the lightning bolt down to earth.”
In the Cuban town of Palmira, Baichwal films a Santeria festival in honor of Shango, god of thunder and lightning. Myths are another form of storytelling, another explanation for the intersection between chance and fate. In Santeria, the powers of nature are personified and those struck by lightning have been “crowned by Shango.”
In one unforgettable sequence, Baichwal visits Santa Maria del Rio, Mexico where five children were electrocuted on a mountaintop while praying beneath a cross on the summit. A mother who lost two children there says, “The priest gave all the parents a little explanation… it was an act of God and that someone above decides this. There are moments when I believe it and there are moments when I don’t. The truth is I don’t know.”
In this case a Christian priest does the same thing as a Santerian—he puts forward a deity to personify nature, another sky god with a different name. Whether it’s a Christian, Santerian, or even a secular intellectual like Auster, a common thread emerges: the resistance of the mind to accept chance and mortality.
And what of the question posed here, the ‘why’? There’s a built-in conceit to the question, as if man, the thinking animal, deserves an explanation. Nature creates and destroys life on a constant basis–we only notice when it becomes personal. The question of ‘why’ also implies a hidden motive behind natural forces. Since there are thousands of lightning strikes every year, it would be strange and miraculous if no one was ever hit by lightning.
Nevertheless, Act of God is an engaging and fair-minded documentary. It explores different cultural beliefs and reveals the frailty of life and the awesome power of nature. The extras include a short film by Peter Greenaway, Lightning: Act of God and an interview with Baichwal where she discusses the making of the documentary and the background for the film.