It takes unusual dedication for a filmmaker to allow her husband to risk instant incineration in the name of art. But when director Jennifer Baichwal was shooting her documentary about lightning, Act of God, her husband, Nick de Pencier, served as director of photography. And part of his job entailed standing on the shoreline of their summer cottage on Georgian Bay during fierce thunderstorms, manning a camera on a metal tripod. “To get the good shot you have to expose yourself,” says de Pencier. “So you play the odds. It’s an interesting mental game.”
Sometimes Baichwal would be with him, until they decided that might not be in the best interests of their two children, ages six and nine. “We’d say, ‘Let’s not both get killed,’ ” she recalls. “So I’d go back to the house. And Nick would put on a life jacket so we could find his body if he was knocked into the water and was floating.” But if he received a direct hit there might be nothing to find, as Baichwal knew only too well. She goes on to tell the story of a girl who was struck while riding a pony down an English country lane: “All that was left of them was a pool of fat. They were completely incinerated.”
Act of God tells the stories of people who have been transformed by split-second lightning strikes, and who then spend years trying to make sense of the experience. The film shows how their lives have been changed by the compulsive search for meaning in a random event. Its subjects range from writer Paul Auster, who as a young teenager saw a boy struck dead, to inspirational guru Dannion Brinkley, a former CIA assassin who claims he was redeemed by divine visions after being zapped to the brink of death.
Premiering as the opening night gala at Toronto’s Hot Docs festival next week (April 30 to May 10), Act of God belongs to a new wave of documentaries that set out to investigate the unknowable, galvanizing hard science and dry fact with metaphysical inquiry and poetic visuals. Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line, The Fog of War) pioneered the genre, which documentary purists first viewed with the suspicion of shocked folkies watching Dylan go electric. Now the genre is ubiquitous. Among the films at Hot Docs, some of the most mundane matters—from Great Lakes sewage treatment in Waterlife to routine boredom in Bloody Mondays & Strawberry Pies—are goosed with a cosmic charge of metaphysics.
Baichwal’s previous film, the award-winning hit Manufactured Landscapes (2007), viewed a hellish landscape through Edward Burtynsky’s seductive photographs of industrial ruin. While it was more subtle than most eco-documentaries, beneath the haunting beauty of its images it carried a silent undercurrent of blame and guilt. With Act of God, once again Baichwal finds austere beauty in environmental horror, but this film is the polar opposite of Manufactured Landscapes. It’s about humility, not hubris. Anyone who survives a lightning strike can’t help asking, “Why me?”—or if the person next to him is struck dead, “Why not me?” But there’s no answer, and no one to blame—at least no one who is remotely accountable.
“Human evil we can explain,” says Baichwal, 45, a former philosophy and theology student. “Natural evil is something that’s impossible to explain.” Yet, even though being struck by lightning seems random, she adds, “it’s impossible not to ascribe meaning to it. It’s irresistible, because it’s such a sign from the heavens.”
In Mexico, Baichwal and de Pencier interviewed the mothers of five children who were struck dead one night in 2006 as they took part in a Catholic prayer ritual around a hilltop cross. One mother who lost her son says that the moment she heard the news she decided “the Lord chose him to be an angel; the Lord never makes mistakes.”
One of the more astonishing stories in the film concerns Brinkley, the former CIA thug, who had just got home from a mission in Nicaragua when lightning struck a phone he was holding. “It hit me in the side of my head, it went down my spine, welded the nails of my shoes to the floor, and threw me in the air,” he says. Brinkley remembers leaving his body, travelling down a tunnel into a bright light and meeting a dozen radiant, divine beings. He says he was dead for 28 minutes, completely paralyzed for six days, and disabled for two years. But he believes his near-death visions filled him with a surge of compassion that rewired his personality. Brinkley went on to create one of America’s largest organizations of hospice volunteers for dying veterans.
Two of the lightning-strike survivors featured in Act of God are writers whose work has been has been indelibly marked by the experience, including Paul Auster, whose interview anchors the film. Baichwal says it was Michael Ondaatje who urged her to look him up—the two authors have been friends since they both sat on the jury of the Cannes film festival in 1997. Auster’s writing is fixated on chance and coincidence, which he traces to one fateful afternoon when he was a 14-year-old kid at a summer camp in New York state.
On impulse, a counsellor hauled some campers off on an ad hoc hike in the woods. They got lost, and trapped in a monstrous thunderstorm—“a storm ripped from the pages of the Bible,” says Auster, who remembers an endless barrage of lightning that “danced around us like spears.” In a panicked dash to find safe ground in a clearing, the boys crawled under a barbed wire fence. The camper next to him was struck dead as he squirmed under the wire, which Auster didn’t realize until the boy’s body began to turn cold and blue. “It changed my whole way of looking at the world,” says Auster. “It’s deeply implanted in all the all the writing I’ve done, everything I’ve thought about ever since.” Yet he resists magical thinking: “I don’t believe in destiny. It’s just pure dumb luck. It’s absolutely meaningless.”
The camera also follows playwright James O’Reilly as he revisits the Ontario farm where he was struck 28 years ago, along with several other young men. He was merely sent flying, but the man standing next to him was killed. The man appeared unscathed on the outside, but as O’Reilly recalls in harrowing detail, “you could see him vomiting his insides, internal organ tissue charred black, all over the forest floor.” Eight years ago, O’Reilly wrote a play about the episode, titled Act of God. (It’s a well-used title, also shared by a Peter Greenaway short about lightning.) But he’s still trying to decipher the experience. “Like random electrical charges,” he says, “your reason is looking for a way to bridge the gaps and connect the dots, the way a spark will jump from one body to another.”
Just as the planet is constantly pulsing with thunderstorms, the brain’s changeable weather is a maze of firing neurons, and Baichwal explores this kinship between lightning and the electricity within our nervous systems. She films a neurologist monitoring the brainwaves of a celebrated musician, Fred Frith, as he improvises part of the film’s score in streaks of rippling distortion on electric guitar—suggesting that thunderbolts and sparks of creativity are rooted in the same primal force.
Lightning’s grim reaper—a jagged blade that cuts the air at about 220,000 km per hour—often strikes without warning. Statistically, the chances of being struck in your lifetime are about one in 700,000. But the figure is misleading. If, when the heavens erupt, you happen to be riding a piece of farm machinery across an open prairie, or camping on an exposed slab of the Canadian Shield, the odds jump dramatically. In a recent issue of The Walrus, Jill Frayne writes about a close call in the summer of 2002, when she was on a kayak trip, camped on a finger of rock where the French River opens into Georgian Bay. The area is a lightning hot spot. When a thunderstorm moved in, the guide ordered the campers to retreat to their tents, and the insulating safety of their Therm-a-Rest mattresses.
“A crack seemed to go off inside my head, and then, suddenly, blue light ignited the tent and streaked down the poles,” writes Frayne. “It was over in a second, maybe less, but the air inside hung there, hazy and peculiar smelling.” She was unhurt, but one of the sectioned tent poles fused solid. “I was thrilled to have witnessed so closely a huge, random act of nature,” Frayne told Maclean’s. And when asked if she ever wondered why she was singled out, and spared, by the heavens, she scoffs at the notion. “ ‘Why me?’ is such an egotistical question,” she says. “The planet has its own long destiny, and if you happen to be present during one of its little sighs or shrugs, it’s not personal. It’s a good little reminder that there are forces much larger than us. I love that there are things out there we can’t explain.”
For de Pencier, trying to shoot thunderbolts offered “some of the most euphoric filming moments in my life,” but it wasn’t easy. He and Baichwal followed a team of Dutch storm chasers through Tornado Alley in the American Midwest, parking at motels to track the weather on wireless Internet. “They got mad at me,” says de Pencier, “because I ordered at Subway rather than McDonald’s and it took too long to make my sandwich before we got back in the van.” The trip was a bust; they didn’t catch any storms. But they did on Georgian Bay, and at Baichwal’s family cottage on Lake of the Woods, where they waited for the storms to chase them. Creating magic on film is often compared to capturing lightning in a bottle. As de Pencier aimed his lens at a darkening sky, that was never quite so literally true.