Reviews

Act of God

A bolt from the blue: this film explores the scientific and metaphysical aspects of a lightning strike.


Act of God

Director: Jennifer Baichwal
Cast: Paul Auster, Fred Frith, James O’Reilly
Distributor: Zeitgeist
Films
Rated: Not Rated
Year: 2009
DVD release date: 2010-01-26

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.

7

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

Barry Lyndon suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

Keep reading... Show less
10

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less
8

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow shines on her impressive interpretation of Fontella Bass' classic track "Rescue Me".

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow pays tribute to the classic Chicago label Chess Records on her new album Playing Chess, which was produced by Steve Greenberg, Mike Mangini, and the legendary Betty Wright. Unlike many covers records, LeGrow and her team of musicians aimed to make new artistic statements with these songs as they stripped down the arrangements to feature leaner and modern interpretations. The clean and unfussy sound allows LeGrow's superb voice to have more room to roam. Meanwhile, these classic tunes take on new life when shown through LeGrow's lens.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image