The Universe is Electric

20 mins read

“We haven’t really talked about this film yet, so we don’t have any sort of recycled schtick prepared. I hope that’s OK.”

Of course, it’s OK: there’s nothing a journalist likes more than a fresh interview subject. Or, in this case, two of them. The speaker is Nick de Pencier, the producer and cinematographer of Act of God, the new documentary directed by Jennifer Baichwal. The three of us are at Bar Mercurio on the edge of the University of Toront’s downtown campus—the same location where, nearly three years ago, I was similarly fortunate to get their first impressions about Manufactured Landscapes. That thematically diffuse and formally magnificent film, a profile of the industrial photographer Edward Burtynsky, which also doubled as a sobering commentary on China’s seismic environmental upheaval, would subsequently become one of the most acclaimed Canadian productions of the last twenty years.

Given its predecessor’s across-the-board success, including a Genie for Best Documentary and a Toronto Film Critics’ Association citation as the Best Canadian Feature of 2006, it follows that expectations are high for Act of God. This anticipation would explain its selection as the opening night film of this year’s Hot Docs festival, and the plan is to release it commercially in early May, one day after its Hot Docs premiere. If Baichwal and de Pencier are feeling any pressure to repeat their success, they’re not showing it. They’re relaxed and chatty, discussing some recent onscreen favourites (including Matteo Garonne’s award-winning mob drama Gomorrah) and taking their time with the wine list. Underneath their cheerfulness, though, I can detect a hint of fatigue, or perhaps a sense of relief that this new project, which had been percolating before they even began making the Burtynsky film, is finally in the can. “With us,” sighs Baichwal, “everything is always a slog.”

We always have ideas for films just gestating,” says de Pencier. “Some make it to the proposal stage and never get made. Some just remain half-formed nebulous thoughts. And some, obviously, get seen through to the end. As we were working through Act of God we gradually came to realize that it was answering, or at least echoing, a lot of the questions we’d been asking in our other films, including the problem of Evil.” Considering that the film’s subject is lightning and, more specifically, the experiences of people who have been struck by it, this invocation of capital-E Evil is a provocation along the same lines as the—maybe—ironic title. Act of God is animated by the tension between the religious impulse to rationalize and embrace the unknowable and the nonbeliever’s temptation to keep it at an analytical distance.

The result is a film that could be read as a kind of sequel to Manufactured Landscapes, showcasing a lethal inversion of the human indifference towards Nature captured in Burtynsky’s photographs. “We are in awe of Nature,” agrees Baichwal. There is something that flummoxes us as beings that are used to having a sense of agency. It makes you realize how small you are in the face of a limitless universe. I’m fascinated by the way that people respond to this realization.

“My academic background is in philosophy and theology,” she continues. “And I feel that the films that I’ve made with Nick are always touching on two unanswerable questions: the relation between randomness and meaning, and the problem of evil. If you have any sort of religious faith, you have to ask yourself about evil. And as humans, we all ask ourselves whether we are beings working towards meaning, or towards death?”

Death is the connective tissue that binds several of Act of God’s narrative strands. Its spectre plagues two writers—the famous American author Paul Auster and the Parkdale playwright James O’Reilly—who both witnessed friends being killed by lightning and turned to their craft to work through their grief. It underpins the inspirational account of Damien Brinkley, a former mercenary who literally saw the light after being struck and, feeling charged with divine agency, opened a series of hospices in Las Vegas. And it hovers over the inhabitants of a small Mexican town who lost five children during a ferocious summer storm—an “act of God” that moved the victims’ parents to question their faith. Tragedy pervades Act of God, but the film doesn’t feel weighed down by it. It’s heady without being heavy, soaring confidently into a meditative or even metaphysical realm where the resonances between people and events are felt but never forced.

Baichwal and de Pencier chose to eschew any kind of voice-over narration, explaining that they wanted the viewer to experience the material in the same intuitive way they did. Act of God may have had its genesis when the filmmakers heard about O’Reilly’s monologue, which is reenacted by the author in the actual North Bay woods where his friend was electrocuted, but it really started taking shape during the globe-trotting shoot, which was in part organized around the international festival rollout of Manufactured Landscapes. “We were in Europe, and we were wearing two hats all the time—getting dressed up to go to an opening or a festival and then changing back to go shoot,” recalls Baichwal. “Doing both at the same time is nearly impossible.”

The distractions were compounded by the fact that the production kept shedding potential narrative threads. De Pencier spent some time with Dutch storm chasers but found that, despite their eccentricities, the footage didn’t work. A hot lead about Jan Michelini—the assistant director on The Passion of the Christ, who was struck by lightning during the film’s shoot in Italy and then moved to Rome to become a religious painter—fizzled. Even the things that did work out were subject to complications: Baichwal and de Pencier got all the way to Marcenat, France to discover that the well-known French storm chaser Alex Hermenat, who maintains a small museum detailing his career, was dubious about appearing on camera. He claimed, straightfaced, that photographing lightning had “stolen his soul,” and Baichwal eventually found a way to make his reticence work in artistic terms. Hermenat’s voice gets overlaid over near-Biblical images of multiple lightning strikes touching ground, transforming him into a disembodied participant in a film preoccupied with absence.

There was one subject who proved spectacularly cooperative: the legendary British avant-garde musician Fred Frith, whose prolific discography includes numerous experiments in improvised composition. “We knew Fred Frith through [cinematographer and director] Peter Mettler, and we thought it would be interesting to have him demonstrate the state of improvisation and contrast that to the unpredictability of lightning. We make meaning by trying to figure out what comes next, but when you’re in the state of improvisation, your brain is doing things that you can’t predict. And when things happen that it can’t predict, that’s how it learns about the world. The universe is electric, from the tiniest brain synapse to the biggest lightning strike. We wanted to show that in action.”

This desire involved getting Frith to submit to an EEG (electroencephalographic) scan while playing the guitar—an arrangement made easier by the revelation that his brother is actually a well-known neurologist in London. It’s clear from looking at the electronic readout that Frith’s cerebral functions are spiking off the chart when he’s creating music; the understanding that what we’re watching is a literal brainstorm leads to Act of God’s climax, which is also its boldest and most brilliant conceit. As Auster reads an autobiographical piece from his anthology Why Write about getting stranded in a downpour with his pals as a teenager, Frith improvises a furious guitar piece. The story and the soundtrack swell together, and the meaning of this juxtaposition becomes clear: Frith’s torrential strumming has become the storm in Auster’s memory piece. The sequence is a total sensory overload, pitting the vividness of Auster’s writing against the astonishing storm imagery and the aural assault of Frith’s composition. But, aided by Roland Schlimme’s deft editing scheme, the interplay is exhilarating.

“I think that all of Auster’s work can be linked to that event,” says Baichwal, who was introduced to the author by their mutual friend Michael Ondaatje. “He was fourteen, so when you trace it back, his preoccupation with chance and meaning and his resistance to any extraneous meaning clearly stems from that experience.” Auster’s story doesn’t attempt to ascribe meaning to what happened: it’s a secular take on the proverbial bolt out of the blue. There’s a reason that the author’s scenes bookend Act of God, but just because Auster gets the final word onscreen doesn’t mean that Baichwal is trying to undercut those who choose to see their experiences in different or more deterministic terms. When the film introduces ex-CIA operative Brinkley, it’s easy enough to see him as just another huckster using born-again rhetoric to excuse past crimes and solicit future success, but Act of God takes him at his word; when he describes being struck, Baichwal even lets us see the light along with him.

That this epiphany is followed by a cut to the neon horror of the Las Vegas skyline shouldn’t necessarily be seen as snarky authorial editorializing. “He lives there,” says Baichwal flatly. “It’s a fact. We asked him why somebody who sees himself as an exalted, spiritual person would be living in a place that so many people consider to be a cesspool, and his answer was very interesting. He said, ‘Las Vegas is a place of possibility. It’s the definition of openness towards chance. It’s a spiritual epicenter.”

This sensitivity is heightened in the segment set in Mexico; while Baichwal tells me that there is something “obscene” about trying to locate God’s plan in the deaths of five children, she’s equally adamant about allowing the people onscreen their beliefs. “In Mexico, you had one mother who put what happened in the context of ‘now my son is an angel,’ and another mother who we see is starting to lose her faith as a result of the same event. I can understand both of those perspectives. I don’t think that you can be a good filmmaker without empathy.” I ask her if having empathy means evacuating her own opinions, and she pauses before answering. “It doesn’t mean excusing yourself from any kind of judgment,” says Baichwal. “Kindness includes a dimension of justice. If somebody deserves to be raked over the coals, that’s okay. In this movie, we could not and would not do that.”

As de Pencier tells it, this sort of humility is not only a matter of ethical documentary practice but also a pretty good attitude to adopt when you’re trying to photograph something that A) lasts for only one onehundredth of a second and B) can kill you. Act of God features some images gleaned from Youtube—Baichwal calls these clips the “Holy-shit-did-you-see-that” shots—but its most arresting passages are comprised of original footage. “The hubris of shooting lightning with a metal tripod was not lost on us,” de Pencier says. “I would go down to the water’s edge alone to shoot, and I always wore a life jacket. Not because I was going to go in—it was mostly so that they’d be able to find my body later.” He laughs, but he seems to mean it. “We’re parents. The whole idea was to divide up the labour. Somebody had to be around to look after the kids and the house.”

Not all of de Pencier’s experiences behind the camera were similarly traumatic: case in point Act of God’s gorgeous opening shot, describing a majestic looking cloud formation moving against the sun. “That was taken from the terrace of the Hotel Nationale in Havana, near where the film festival takes place. I was getting some shots of the ocean and it was just there.” It was also apparently not so majestic. “It was tiny. I could have just reached up and brushed it with a broom while it was forming.”

It’s an appropriately ethereal description of a film that was similarly fragile in its formation—although it’s this fragility that de Pencier says has kept the pair’s working process so steady for more than a decade. “Because we lease the camera, it’s on the shelf all the time. There’s an inertia working against you when you plan your shoots around the rental house. It’s a block to spontaneity. We don’t have to work like that. So if we’re visiting a cottage in the summer and we want to shoot lightning, we can just take the camera—it’s not days on the clock. We can cast a wide net for moments instead of trying to manufacture them.”

This sentiment could, perhaps, be a manifesto for Baichwal and de Pencier’s filmography to date. Act of God is, above all, a generous piece of work that puts an onus of interpretation on the viewer. “It’s easier to resolve these questions by deciding that there is some sort of plan,” says Baichwal. “And yet reality is ambiguous. We live in contingency. We live in a place where there is no absolute truth. That’s the condition of our lives. If we are to explore that condition honestly, we can’t impose our own pat answers.

“Whenever I encounter films with an obvious perspective,” she adds, “I’m suspicious. If you don’t honour the murkiness of reality in documentary, you’re not doing your job. So how do you honour that murkiness without being murky yourself?” Act of God is teeming—with ideas, images, and incidents—but it’s never murky. Instead, it enhances perspective. Whether its more demanding construction precludes mainstream success on the order of Manufactured Landscapes is immaterial, because it’s every bit that film’s equal. It’s poetic and stimulating. It’s documentary cinema as brainstorm.

Adam Nayman is a critic and teacher in Toronto. He writes for Cinema Scope, The Ringer, and other publications.

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